Pa. officials OK bill formalizing state prison closure process
Pa. legislature recently adopted a new bill that says state officials must give three months written notice to employees that it intends to close a prison
By Steve Esack
The Morning Call
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Gov. Tom Wolf is expected soon to sign a bill that slightly extends the closure process for state prisons and police barracks — provided it can be done safely.
The House and Senate recently adopted Senate Bill 748, which says the state Corrections Department and state police must give three months written notice to employees, local governments and elected officials that it intends to close such facilities.
That’s a smaller window than Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, proposed when he unveiled the bill in spring 2017. His original bill said closures could not occur for one year, causing Democratic Gov Tom Wolf to object because it already takes about six months to wind down operations at a closing prison.
Subsequent negotiations settled on seven months.
The House Appropriations Committee estimated the timeline will not cost taxpayers extra money. However, the Corrections department previously estimated taxpayers a one-year closure (as Argall had proposed) would cost $50 million.
Argall developed the bill after Wolf and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced plans to close two of four facilities, including the Frackville Correctional Facility in Schuylkill County. Wolf and Wetzel gave less than a month’s notice that the closures were being contemplated.
The plan caused Republican and Democratic lawmakers and the Corrections Officers Union to lobby to save their prisons as economic engines that provide good-paying jobs in their local communities. In the end, Wolf and Wetzel closed one facility, in Pittsburgh, after conducting a cost-benefit analysis on the department’s costs and impact on local communities.
Upon taking office in 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett faced a similar legislative and union uproar when he and Wetzel opted not to build a new prison in Greene County and closed another in Westmoreland County.
Corbett’s correctional reforms, continued by Wolf, have helped reduce the state’s prison population. Their efforts were enhanced by federal and state court decisions in 2013 and 2015, respectively, that struck down many mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes.
According to Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott, this is how the bill would work: A governor says on Jan. 1 a prison is closing. That starts the three-month process of public hearings and economic studies on the impact to local communities and workers. On April 1, a governor says the plan is moving forward, starting another four-month process of advertising the closure to elected officials and workers, and communicating to the public how inmates will be treated and public safety ensured. The affected prison could not close by Aug. 1.
In an interview Tuesday, Argall said that process is better than having no heads-up that closures were coming, as was the case under Corbett and Wolf.
Schuylkill County, he said, welcomed the construction of Frackville prison in the 1980s and the community deserves to have a chance to save it from a future plan to close it. Frackville, like other state prisons, is both an economic engine for jobs and a place to rehabilitate inmates, he said.
“I received over 5,000 calls and emails in Schuylkill County when SCI Frackville was threatened,” Argall said. “It’s a big issue.”
Jason Bloom, president of the corrections union, said the bipartisan bill “ensures corrections officers and their families are respected when the commonwealth considers the closing of a state correctional institution” and can argue to keep it open.
The bill provides needed legislative oversight of how the executive branch picks facilities to close, but lawmakers are wrong to view prisons as a local jobs tool, said Nate Benefield, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, an anti-tax, pro-business Harrisburg think tank.
“We should not see building prisons and locking people up as a jobs program,” he said.
The liberal-leaning American Civil Liberties Union did not take a position on the bill, but the state should be trying its best to close prisons rather than prolong their use, ACLU spokesman Andy Hoover said.
The bill will go into effect upon Wolf’s signature.
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