Wolf Administration to Close Pittsburgh State Prison to Save $80M Annually

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The Wolf administration said Thursday it will close Pittsburgh State Prison to save money at a time when inmate numbers are dropping and the state faces a huge budget deficit, but has opted against an earlier plan to also shut down a second facility.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the 1,900-inmate prison will close by the end of June, producing a net annual savings of about $81 million.

The administration had previously said it was considering closing two prisons from a list of five—Pittsburgh, Frackville, Mercer, Retreat and Waymart—but ultimately decided to shut down just one.

Pittsburgh, which first opened in 1882, posed a challenge to shut down because it serves as a diagnostic and classification center, as well as housing medical services such as a cancer treatment unit. Wetzel said those issues were worked out.

"While we initially felt that closing SCI Pittsburgh would present challenges for closure, upon review of the information, we feel confident that those challenges can be mitigated by relocating the services and specialized units to other facilities," Wetzel said.

Pittsburgh's programs also include therapeutic communities for people battling substance abuse, a veterans' service unit and a hemophilia unit that treats six inmates.

The state inmate population is about 49,000 and has fallen by 2,400 since mid-2012. There are currently 26 prisons.

The plan also involves doing away with about 1,500 halfway-house beds, many occupied by recent parolees who lack living alternatives.

The changes are part of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's strategy to address a massive budget hole.

"The growing size and cost of our prisons system has gone unaddressed for too long — rising to more than $2 billion and threatening funding for programs that the people of Pennsylvania want: education, senior care and jobs and training programs," Wolf said in a statement.

The prison is in the district of state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, who called the process to close it hasty and flawed, and said prison staff and the regional economy will be hurt.

Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania state corrections officers' union, asked the Legislature to establish guidelines for closing prisons in the future.

"Communities were given only weeks to fight each other to stay open," Bloom said. "Now, inmates will be stacked like cordwood into a system that is bursting at 104.7 percent capacity, despite aggressive efforts to reduce the prison population."

All 555 people who work at Pittsburgh State Prison will be offered jobs elsewhere within Corrections, and some are expected to retire. Inmates will be transferred to other facilities.

The State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh, also known as Western Pen, is on the Ohio river, just north of downtown. It was closed in 2005 but re-opened two years later.

State officials said the site likely will be quickly converted for another use. It consists of 14 acres inside the fence and 10 acres outside the fence. The 42 structures include 10 housing units.

"We're talking about riverfront property," Wetzel said. "We're talking about an area that is really growing."

The region around the prison has a lower unemployment rate than the other four that had been under consideration, he said.

Two prisons closed in 2013, Cresson State Prison and Greensburg State Prison. Phoenix State Prison is now under construction alongside an existing prison, Graterford, outside Philadelphia. When it opens, Graterford will close.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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