Pa. moves to close another prison as incarceration rates drop
The state moved to close State Correctional Institution — Retreat to help fill a $140M hole in the DOC's budget
WILKES-BARRE — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections issued a report Wednesday morning that recommends the closing of the State Correctional Institution at Retreat.
Three local state senators then issued a terse statement, which included calling on Gov. Tom Wolf to reject the recommendation and keep the facility open.
A news release issued by the DOC stated:
“Department of Corrections Executive Deputy Secretary Tabb Bickell announced today that the Department of Corrections submitted its SCI Retreat final report to Gov. Tom Wolf and the minority and majority leaders of both the House and Senate. That final report recommends the closure of the facility. A final decision will be forthcoming.”
State Sens. John Yudichak, I-Swoyersville; Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township; and John Gordner, R-Berwick, issued a joint statement following the announcement.
“We stand with the brave men and women who have given their heart and soul working at SCI Retreat and the communities of Luzerne County. We vehemently disagree with the findings made in the report by the Department of Corrections to recommend the closure of SCI Retreat.
“Act 133 of 2018 was enacted to ensure that any prison closure would be thoroughly vetted in an open and transparent manner. The Department of Corrections clearly gave less than a good faith effort during the hearing process, and we do not believe it was fair to the workers of SCI Retreat, their families or the communities of Luzerne County.
“As we have done in the past, we stand in a bipartisan manner to call upon Gov. Wolf to reject the findings made in this report and keep SCI Retreat open.”
State Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, addressed the closure via Twitter, including a video of past meetings on SCI Retreat and protests to keep it open.
“We have an obligation to explore all of our options and protect our residents, their families and caregivers,” Mullery tweeted.
The DOC report was compiled after two public hearings were held to discuss the impact closing the facility would have on the host municipality and the region. The hearings were held as a requirement of Act 133.
The DOC report details why the department has decided to recommend closing the prison that houses more than 1,000 inmates and has 384 full-time employees.
In the executive summary of the report, it is stated that the DOC continues to experience a significant decrease in the inmate population.
“In fact, a reduction of 1,900 inmates in fiscal year 2018/2019 was the largest one-year decrease in the Department’s history — all at a time when crime rates continue to fall,” the report states. “Furthermore, current population projections anticipate a continued decline in the prison population over the next five years.”
At the same time, the DOC says it is also faced with the challenge of a projected budget deficit of approximately $140 million for fiscal year 2019/2020. As a result of that significant budget deficit and continued decrease in the inmate population, the DOC said it would be fiscally irresponsible not to consider a facility closure.
“The DOC is able to continue to prioritize the safety of staff, inmates and the community in addition to remaining a good steward of taxpayer money,” the report states.
The report goes on to say that the Justice Reinvestment (JRI) Act, along with the closures of SCIs Cresson, Greensburg, and Pittsburgh provided a “cost avoidance” to the Department of $543 million.
“This report will show that the DOC considered all appropriate and relevant factors in reaching its final recommendation.
The DOC formally organized the closure steering committee on Aug. 26, 2019.
The report further states that SCI Retreat has significant physical plant and infrastructure concerns where renovation and upgrades are needed to preserve the operations of the facility.
Specifically, a structural inspection of the access bridge over the Susquehanna River has recently identified structural deficiencies that are in need of immediate repair, the report states.
An expenditure of $15-$20 million for a full replacement of the bridge in the next 10-15 years is recommended by PennDOT — $1 million would be required to paint the bridge to prevent further corrosive damage. The bridge was previously painted in 1993.
As far as the loss of revenue to the Shickshinny Municipal Authority, the report calls for a $32,000/quarter usage fee. The DOC is committed to paying a quarterly usage fee for a period of 5 years from the closure date.
The report estimates that annual mothballing costs for the facility will total $1.2 million, including minimal utility services to maintain the facility as well as contracted operations for the boiler plant and security to oversee the closed facility.
The report states the ability to offer positions in Northeast Pennsylvania will minimize the economic impact to this area and potential negative impacts to families.
“The selection of SCI Retreat is the least impactful selection of the DOC facilities because it is one of the oldest facilities and presents significant physical plant challenges,” the report states. “It provides the most reasonable relocation options for staff with SCIs Dallas, Mahanoy, Frackville, Coal Township, Muncy, and Waymart available within 65 miles of SCI Retreat.”
On Dec. 20, the office of Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the decision on SCI Retreat would not come until sometime after the first of the year.
In August, Wolf’s administration and the Department of Corrections announced their current proposal to close SCI-Retreat.
DOC Executive Deputy Secretary for Institutional Operations Tabb Bickell was placed in charge of the process amid ongoing outrage over profane remarks made by DOC Secretary John Wetzel during a public hearing on plans to close the state prison, located in Newport Township.
In November, a meeting was held at the Newport Township Municipal Building that was attended by Sen. John Yudichak, I-Swoyersville, and representatives of Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township; Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township; Shickshinny Borough and Sewer Authority and Conyngham Township. Yudichak said Bickell and DOC officials attended the meeting, along with representatives of the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Department of Environmental Protection.
“It was a very positive meeting,” Yudichak said at the time. “We provided detailed information on the devastating impact that closing SCI Retreat would have on the community.”
After that meeting, Yudichak said a strong argument was made by the Shickshinny Sewer Authority, which expanded its facility to accommodate the prison. He said if the prison closes, the authority would have to raise rates significantly, putting a severe financial burden on users.
Yudichak also said Newport Township would face cutting its police department because of the loss of revenue.