In an effort to slow closings of Pa. prisons, senators hold public hearing
The hearing comes before Thursday's deadline set by the corrections department to announce which two of five possible prisons will be closed
By Robert Swift
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Senators are holding a public hearing today in an effort to slow down the closing of two state prisons by the Wolf administration.
One of the officials they are eager to hear from is state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who is scheduled to testify at the joint hearing before the Senate Majority and Minority Policy Committees and Senate Judiciary Committee.
The hearing comes before Thursday's deadline set by the corrections department to announce which two of five possible prisons will be closed. Three of the five — SCI-Waymart in Wayne County, SCI-Retreat in Luzerne County and SCI-Frackville in Schuylkill County — are in Northeast Pennsylvania. The other two on the list are SCI-Mercer and SCI-Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania.
Also on Thursday, the corrections department plans to release a report looking at the economic impact of closing these prisons, said agency spokeswoman Amy Worden. This report also will look at potential reuse of a closed facility.
Northeast region lawmakers called for a delay in the closure announcement so the economic impact information can be evaluated. The hearing will provide insight on taxpayers' costs to close a prison, public safety and prison overpopulation, they said.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, asked
Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday to delay the closing decision until all information is gathered.
"I respectfully question how this compressed timetable will allow your administration to fully vet the impact that the closures will have," wrote Mr. Barletta. "This decision will greatly impact the regional economy and officer safety, and even inmate safety."
The goal is to find out why the administration chose the five prisons they did, said Sen. David Argall, R-29, Tamaqua, chairman of the majority policy committee.
The hearing will feature testimony from local officials representing each of the five communities surrounding the prisons and officials with the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and Pennsylvania Prison Society.
Scheduled to testify for Retreat are: Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis; Luzerne County Manager David Pedri; and Newport Twp. Manager Peter Wanchisen. Testifying for Waymart are: Wayne County Commissioner Wendell Kay; Executive Director of the Wayne Economic Development Corporation Mary Beth Wood; and Executive Director of the Chamber of the Northern Poconos Debbie Gillette. Testifying for Frackville are: President of the Schuylkill Economic Development Corporation Frank Zukas and Ryan Twp. Supervisor Clyde "Champ" Holman.
Lackawanna County Commissioner Patrick O'Malley and the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce expressed support for SCI-Waymart.
Mr. O'Malley held a press conference Friday with correctional officers from the facility in attendance.
"Waymart is in a very scary situation," Mr. O'Malley said. "They're looking at the closure of a prison that has an immense impact on the community of Lackawanna (County), Wayne (County) and the surrounding areas; 732 families are very, very concerned."
Meanwhile, Chamber President Robert Durkin and Board President Mark Volk wrote a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel in support of keeping the prison open.
"Although the SCI Waymart facility is located in Wayne County, its impact is truly regional," the letter reads. "With a $100 million budget, and an $83 million payroll, this institution plays a critical role in our regional economy."
(c)2017 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)