Community Leaders Testify Before Joint Senate Committee on Potential Closure of Two State Prisons

Harrisburg, January 23, 2017 − State Senator John T. Yudichak (D-Luzerne/Carbon) and State Representative Gerald Mullery (D-Newport Township) were joined by other northeastern Pennsylvania public officials today in Harrisburg for a public hearing—convened by the Senate’s Policy and Judiciary committees—on the Wolf administration’s plans to close two prison facilities before the end of June. The Department of Corrections is expected to announce their decision on Thursday, January 26th.

“Today’s hearings confirmed that rushing to close two prisons could have significant and irreversible economic and public safety consequences for those communities where these facilities operate,” said Senator Yudichak. “From the beginning, I have asked the governor to ignore Thursday’s deadline and allow the budgetary process to develop so that we can exhaust all of our options and present a balanced and responsible budget that will keep all five prisons open until Pennsylvania’s prison population has been reduced to its operational capacity.”

Senator Yudichak noted that while Pennsylvania’s prison population has declined slightly, it still remains—at over 49,000 inmates—36% higher than it was in 2000.

Representative Mullery argued that public safety should not have a price tag. “If the prison population continues to decline naturally then there could be a time to evaluate how Pennsylvania houses and rehabilitates its inmates, but that is not today’s reality,” said Rep. Mullery. “Instead, we are considering closing two prisons at a time when the prison population is higher than the DOC’s optimum levels.”

Many local officials traveled to Harrisburg to highlight the impact of closing SCI-Retreat on their constitutents. Newport Township Manager Peter Wanchisen emphasized that the township could not afford to lose its largest employer because it would jeopardize $115,000 in revenue, but also because it is impossible to accurately predict the full-extent of Retreat’s closure in a township that is one of the most economically distressed in Pennsylvania—23.4% of residents live in poverty. Wanchisen pleaded for a delay in any decision to close prisons and said “that Newport Township residents are looking for a helping hand from Harrisburg.”

Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis cautioned that closing the prison could destabilize prison environments elsewhere in Pennsylvania and endanger the lives of corrections officers and inmates.

“When prisons are overcrowded, violent assaults increase. Instead of closing prisons, Pennsylvania should continue to invest in rehabilitative programs that will reduce recidivism, which in turn makes our communities safer,” said District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis. “We can save more money by continuing reforms in our criminal justice system rather than just shuttering two prisons.”

Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri testified that the administration should have a complete understanding of the financial costs of closing two prisons before Thursday’s deadline. He highlighted a recent case where the Commonwealth reimbursed Luzerne County more than $4,000 for prosecuting a prison assault case at SCI-Dallas.

“As a former prosecutor and now county manager, I can tell you that closing prisons prematurely will have unforeseen consequences that could jeopardize the security of some of the state’s facilities and drive up other expenses such as reimbursements to county prosecutors and public defenders, mandatory overtime, and civil litigation that could eviscerate any projected savings from shuttering two prisons,” said Pedri.