SEC. WETZEL DISCUSSES STATE PRISON CLOSURES
By Andreas Dienner, Pennsylvania Legislative Services I January 6, 2017
Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel held a conference call Friday to announce that DOC will close two state prisons in 2017 while concurrently reducing the capacity of community corrections facilities, impacting more than 800 staff members and thousands of inmates.
DOC is currently considering five prisons for closure, including:
· SCI Frackville (Schuylkill County)
· SCI Pittsburgh (Allegheny County)
· SCI Mercer (Mercer County)
· SCI Retreat (Luzerne County)
· SCI Waymart (Wayne County)
Sec. Wetzel indicated that each affected employee will be offered a position elsewhere within the Department, while inmates will be transferred to other facilities based on needs. A final decision on the two prisons selected for closure will be announced on January 26.
Sec. Wetzel answered questions from the media.
It is well known Pennsylvania’s prisons are already overcrowded. How will this affect that issue?
Sec. Wetzel emphasized the difference between operational capacity and emergency capacity. He said emergency capacity is the actual number of beds, and specifically referenced 1,000 offline beds at a Camp Hill facility. “We’re going from 87 percent of true capacity to 92 percent,” he added.
Is it ideal to be operating at the emergency capacity?
“I prefer to keep it at… 90 percent of emergency capacity, but we’re not in ideal times,” he said. He indicated financial responsibilities have driven the decision.
What happens to inmates in halfway houses when their population is cut in half?
Sec. Wetzel said halfway houses have not been yielding satisfactory outcomes, which he partly attributed to mixing risk classifications. He explained low risk individuals will be given an outpatient model to help change these outcomes and costs by lowering beds from 3,000 to 1,500. He noted that as soon as the Phoenixville facility opens, the Graterford facility will close.
Why are three of the five considered prisons in the Northeast region?
“It’s more about the size and the age,” Sec. Wetzel said. “If you look at the profile you’re looking at older and smaller prisons. What we’re shooting for is somewhere in the ballpark of 2,500 inmates. We could accomplish that by closing one prison but you get a lot bigger savings if you close two small ones.”
What about the pushback on job loss if both are in the same region?
Sec. Wetzel said jobs are a real concern, but indicated ongoing work with the Department of Community and Economic Development to weigh and measure the impact the closings would have on each community. However, he said, closing prisons is the primary way to reduce corrections spending, which he noted many legislators complain about.
What is the total expected savings?
Sec. Wetzel said it varies depending on which facilities are closed, but noted the savings are outlined in the analysis. He noted a $200 million deficit in the DOC budget which must be accounted for before the next budget.
Where will the rest of the $200 million in savings come from?
He said there is a preliminary list in the analysis, but noted things could change after the budget process is finished.
Will you sell these facilities once they are closed?
Sec. Wetzel said DOC plans to rent the beds to other states or the federal government. He pointed out the Trump administration’s potential focus on deporting immigrants convicted of a crime, which he said could cause a swift increase in federal need for beds.
Will these closings result in job reductions?
Sec. Wetzel said every employee will be offered another position. He noted complaints of excessive overtime within the Department and said jobs may be reallocated to combat overtime hours as well as retirement effects in certain areas.
How large will the staff reductions be?
He said this also varies by which facilities are chosen.
You mentioned the 1000 beds in Camp Hill, but that is less than half of the anticipated affected inmates. Where will the rest go?
Sec. Wetzel said the effects will depend on which facilities are closed, but said the analysis outlines a plan for which housing units will be reopening.
Regarding the closing of halfway houses, do you expect low risk individuals to be paroled without a home plan? And if not, does that begin to back up the prison population?
Sec. Wetzel said the problem will be counteracted by the recent development of the housing voucher program in the community corrections system. He said it will be key for the Parole Board to develop home plans early on, paired with housing vouchers and outpatient services, to allow quality services at a cheaper price.
In closing, Sec. Wetzel emphasized the difference between operational and emergency capacity as a key factor in their decision.