The union that represents more than 10,000 correctional officers at state prisons across Pennsylvania has come out against a Department of Corrections plan to close two facilities.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced a proposal Thursday to close the state correctional facility at Retreat, located about 30 miles southwest of Scranton. He said the move, along with plans to close another prison in Mercer County, comes as the department must deal with a $140 million budget deficit.
Closing the Retreat facility alone would save the state $60 million between now and the next fiscal year, Wetzel said. It will also save the state money from various repairs that would no longer be necessary.
In addition, the 400 employees at Retreat would be offered positions at another state facility, and there are six within 65 miles of Retreat.
Even though the closures won’t affect staff levels, Larry Blackwell, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said in a statement that the decision to close facilities goes against what Wetzel told lawmakers earlier this year – that the state’s prison system is in need of stability.
The announcement also comes on the heels of as many as six recent killings in the state that have been linked to parolees in the system.
The deaths are “a further indication that the system needs every officer and facility it can muster,” Blackwell said. “Given that Pennsylvania’s parole system is facing serious questions, and the secretary’s own call for stability rather than closures – this move simply makes no sense. If reforms are going to take place in our parole system, Pennsylvania will need facilities to house inmates. It’s very clear that price tags are being placed before public safety. As we have seen recently by the alleged actions of parolees, that is a dangerous gamble with the lives of innocent Pennsylvanians.”
In a statement, Wetzel said the system recently experienced its largest one-year decline, with about 1,900 individuals no longer in the system. With the closure, the state’s capacity rate for male inmates will go from 95.7 to 98 percent.
"The DOC must continue to be a good steward of taxpayer money," Wetzel said. "Again, all of the improvements made to our system, combined with the consolidation with the Parole Board, allow us to make safety-conscience decisions that help to save taxpayer money at the same time. We continue to find ways to reduce our footprint while still providing for public safety."
Besides the two closures, the department is also cancelling contracts with seven county jails that offer re-entry or parole violator services and eliminating positions at department’s central office.
According to state law, a minimum 90-day review process will begin before department officials make a final determination on the closure. Part of that process will include a public hearing on Oct. 17 in Luzerne County. More information on that hearing will be made available soon, the state said.
The union said it will use the review time to make its case to keep Retreat and Sharon open.
“PSCOA will work with our members of SCI-Retreat and Sharon CCC, state legislators and community leaders to do all that we can to support them during this process,” Blackwell said. “We will do everything we can to fight this closure.”