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State plans prison closings

Budget cuts will target Woods Run, Waynesburg

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HARRISBURG -- The state prisons in Pittsburgh and Waynesburg will be closed starting in August unless union leaders for corrections officers can persuade Gov. Ed Rendell to keep the facilities open.

Roy C. Pinto, the vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said that union officials will meet today on the issue with Rendell and Corrections Secretary Jeffrey A. Beard.

"It's an easy plea to make. It's what's right," said Pinto, who represents 9,800 employees. "We need the cell space. If the state closes SCI Pittsburgh and SCI Waynesburg, a bad situation will only get worse."

The Pittsburgh prison is a maximum security institution in Woods Run; Waynesburg is a minimum security prison, one of two in Greene County. SCI Greene will remain open.

Pinto and Beard both testified about the closings yesterday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the request of state Sens. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, and Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who oppose the closings.

Pinto argued that, with the system already operating at 120 percent of capacity, it made no sense to close institutions. But Beard said budget cuts make it necessary and that newer facilities can be operated for less money.

The state's two new prisons, built at a cost of $127 million, are SCI Fayette opening in August, and SCI Forest, opening next year.

As of yesterday, there were 40,700 inmates in the system, which is meant to hold roughly 35,000 inmates.

Even with two new prisons opening, the system will still be overcrowded, Beard said, but he told the senators that the problems associated with overcrowded are lessened in more modern facilities, which can be staffed with fewer people, have better sight lines and can be run more efficiently.

"In tough times we must make tough choices," Beard said. "The question then becomes, 'Will these changes allow us to perform our basic correctional mission of providing secure, safe and humane facilities?' I believe the answer is yes."

Pinto said he plans to argue to the governor today that it would make more sense to keep Pittsburgh and Waynesburg open, and then shift inmates from overcrowded facilities to the new prisons in Fayette and Forest.

Beard told the committee that he initially hoped to keep the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh open, but that the state's budget crisis made him change his mind.

The Corrections budget for 2003-2004 is $1.3 billion, up $32 million from the current spending plan.

Beard said that unless the inmate population increases significantly between now and August, he would begin to close Pittsburgh and Waynesburg in the summer, a move that will save $30 million annually, $20 million in Pittsburgh and $10 million in Waynesburg.

"The plan would be to phase out Waynesburg starting in August and through the end of the year. In Pittsburgh, it would be from September to next March," Beard said following the hearing.

He said employees from both facilities would be offered work at SCI Fayette or at other facilities. About 1,000 jobs are at stake. The new SCI Fayette will have 700 employees.

The maximum security prison in Woods Run is home to some of the state's most dangerous criminals as well as those who are chronically ill or who need mental health treatment, Beard testified.

Because of the special programs at Pittsburgh and because of the age of the facility -- it was built in 1882 -- the annual operating cost per inmate is $33,333.

SCI Waynesburg spends $32,685 annually to house inmates. Beard said that system-wide, the average annual cost for housing inmates is $28,237. In medium security facilities, it is $21,500, he said.

Johnna Pro can be reached at jpro@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1574.

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