CO union decries 'mystifying' plan to shutter Pa. prisons
The union president claimed the closures would only jam-pack an already overpopulated system and put the public in harm’s way
By Joe Dolinsky
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — The president of the union that represents nearly 10,000 corrections officers across the state said he was mystified Friday by a plan to mothball two prisons and claimed the closures would only jam-pack an already overpopulated system and put the public in harm’s way.
The statement from Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association President Jason Bloom came on the heels of an abrupt announcement from the Wolf Administration earlier Friday that five state prisons, including SCI Retreat in Luzerne County and two others in Northeastern Pennsylvania, were being eyed for closure.
Gov. Tom Wolf, who said the decision to close two correctional institutions was due in large part to a “serious” shortfall in the state budget, stated he wasn’t choosing to invest in prisons, but rather education, because “it’s both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.”
In support of the decision, Wolf touted a “historic” decrease in crime and the prison population in recent years.
But Bloom argued the administration’s projections were “extremely optimistic.” He said state Department of Corrections figures show facilities are operating at 103.8 percent of their capacity and shrinking the system by forcing inmates out of two prisons and into other overpopulated facilities would put the public at risk.
Bloom said it was “mystifying why this administration would be closing prisons if we can’t even house the inmates we currently have.”
Shuttering the prisons without public input, Bloom said, would uproot families, damage local economies and leave five communities “twisting in the wind” in the days leading up to the decision.
The DOC, on its website, acknowledged closing the facilities would be a “difficult financial loss” to their communities.
“As a state agency, we are required to consider what is best for the entire commonwealth and taxpayers’ money. We will be partnering with the Department of Community and Economic Development, Labor and Industry and other state agencies to work with the local community to mitigate the impact.”
The DOC said it will maintain the shuttered facilities following their closure until they’re turned over to the state Department of General Services and put up for sale.
Retreat, built in 1938, houses more than 1,100 inmates and employs 400, according to the DOC. Its closure would save $45 million, second fewest among the prisons considered. The others include facilities in Schuylkill, Allegheny, Mercer, and Wayne counties.
In making its decision, the department considered size, age, location, cost and specialty functions of the facilities. To that end, while the savings would be higher from closing the prisons in Allegheny and Mercer counties, the facilities offer inmate services that would be “extremely difficult” to transition, DOC Secretary John Wetzel said Friday.
Officials are expected to announce a decision Jan. 26 and close the facilities in June.
In the meantime, Bloom said the union would call on lawmakers to hold public hearings to explore ways to keep the prisons from the chopping block.