HARRISBURG — The Department of Corrections plans to spend $5.5 million annually on two prisons it is closing and will issue contracts to private companies for their maintenance and security, the state corrections commissioner said Tuesday.
Corrections officers from Greensburg attending a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing gasped and groaned at the news.
"To me it's totally disrespectful," said Keith Graft, a corrections officer at SCI Greensburg, which along with SCI Cresson will close by June 30 under the department's plan. Graft and other officers also were upset because Corrections Secretary John Wetzel left the hearing after being the first person to testify. Officers believe the maintenance jobs should go to their co-workers who can't relocate and will lose their state jobs.
Wetzel said later he plans to seek bids for the contracted maintenance but will give the union an opportunity to make a counterproposal.
Employees were offered transfers to a new prison in Benner Township, Centre County, and SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County, the department said.
The closures affect about 800 workers. The department required them to request transfers to the other prisons by the end of the day Tuesday.
The state is closing the older prisons to cut costs as the new one opens in Centre County. Wetzel said the moves will save $23 million in the 2013-14 budget. It comes as prison populations shrink, he said.
Wetzel said the state will make every effort to sell the closed prisons but acknowledged it could take years.
For some, the closures could mean moving their families.
Lance Burkholder of Mt. Pleasant, president of the local corrections officers' union, said he hopes to transfer to SCI Laurel Highlands, which is about a 50-mile round-trip for him. If he can't get into Laurel Highlands, where he began his career, "I'll be forced to uproot my family and move to another county." Burkholder, just 40, can't retire yet.
Wetzel ran into a cross-fire of questions and criticism from senators of both parties. He accepted responsibility for botching notification of the closures, which the media learned about hours before employees did.
"Everybody is shell-shocked. Everybody is angry," said Ray Pinto, state president of the officers' union.
Senators asked for a delay so employees have more time to get their affairs in order.
Wetzel said he would consider it. His spokeswoman said he could delay either the closures or employees' deadline to decide about whether to accept transfers.
Wetzel said in response to questioning from Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, that the decision to close the prisons came in December.
"I just think the way the employees were treated was terrible," Ward said.