Lawmakers protest Wolf’s swift action to close prisons

    Cells in a newly cleared wing at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill

    Cells in a newly cleared wing at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill

    The Pennsylvania Corrections Department is preparing to close two of the commonwealth’s prisons.

    The agency and Gov. Tom Wolf say the decision is tied to the state’s stubborn budget deficit, as well as declining prison populations. But at the first and only scheduled hearing on the plan, a panel of senators and others made it clear the decision took them by surprise and they have significant concerns.

    The two prisons to be closed will be announced Thursday. They’ll be picked from five possible options: State Correctional Institutions Frackville, Mercer, Retreat, Pittsburgh, or Waymart.

    Up to 3,000 prisoners will be displaced and shuffled into empty beds in the remaining facilities. That will push the population up to 109 percent of the system’s designed capacity — a threshold commonly referred to as “emergency capacity.”

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    Under questioning from GOP Senator Michele Brooks of Mercer County, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel readily admitted that this level of crowding can make things difficult.

    “It’s not the ideal way [to run the prison system]” he said, adding that “even right now, we’re over operational capacity.”

    Many of the prison workers, lawmakers, and advocates at the hearing were also concerned about the economic impact of prison closures on the towns that host them.

    Most frequently of all, they complained that they hadn’t been given enough notice about the closures.

    Democratic Senator John Yudichak, of Luzerne County, said he doesn’t question that what the state’s doing is legal. But he still says it’s not right.

    “If you want to make a budget decision, make it through the public budget process,” he said. “We have a House appropriations committee, a Senate appropriations committee, the executive branch is part of those negotiations on the new budget. Let that go through the public process. Respect Pennsylvania taxpayers.”

    Republican Senator Lisa Baker, also of Luzerne County, wondered if there’s an ulterior motive at play.

    “I do have to say there are many people who believe that this is a leverage to get a personal income tax increase, or some kind of tax increase,” she said.

    Despite a multi-billion-dollar structural deficit, the House and Senate’s GOP majorities have positioned themselves firmly against broad-based tax increases. So far Wolf has said he won’t propose any.

    He and Wetzel maintain that there’s no hidden agenda.

    Wetzel also said there’s no plan to slow the process.

    Asked whether the lawmakers’ concerns would be taken into account, DOC spokeswoman Amy Worden said the agency has been “gathering input for several weeks and is taking all comments from members of the public, lawmakers, staff and all stakeholders into account before making its decision.”

    She said Wetzel is still on track to announce which two prisons are closing on Thursday, as scheduled.

    Wetzel said the speed is necessary if the state wants to see any savings this fiscal year. The department aims to have the two prisons empty by July.

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