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Fayette residents hope prison holds promise of better future

Thursday, July 31, 2003

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

LUZERNE -- Roomy classrooms with rows of desks or craft stations overlooking wide, airy windows. Carpeted libraries with beechwood shelves half-filled with law books, literary classics and best-selling novels. A five-chair barber shop and exercise rooms with wall-to-wall padded floors.

Corrections Officer Cindy Hobberchalk looks over a day-use room in housing unit A at the new State Correctional Institution Fayette. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Online map

Location of new prison

At first glance, the place suggests a decorator-hued community college, where savory odors waft from dining rooms through halls with soothing beige walls and coordinated mosaics of eggshell, sage and burgundy tiles on the floors.

Step outside onto the manicured lawns, though, and that illusion fades as the sunlight glints off the silvery coils of razor-edged wire that wind over every inch of the buff stone walls that encircle Pennsylvania's newest penitentiary. But local, county and state officials downplayed the grim mission of the new State Correctional Institution Fayette during dedication ceremonies yesterday, hailing it instead as a spur for future development in this impoverished rural county.

"There is an essential dubiousness about opening a state prison -- having punch, cutting a ribbon and passing accolades. But that's modern life," said state House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, noting that the state's inmate population had grown from 8,000 in 1976, when he was first elected, to more than 40,000 today.

The $125 million, 2,034-bed prison, built on 238 acres of former strip mine property in a remote corner of Fayette County, is set to open in September, when minimum-security prisoners are transferred from SCI-Waynesburg in Greene County. The state Department of Corrections plans to close both SCI Waynesburg and the maximum-security SCI Pittsburgh, maintaining that SCI Fayette will be more efficient and less costly to operate.

Pennsylvania's 26th prison initially was to have opened last spring. The opening was pushed back due to state budget cuts and delays in construction of Luzerne's new sewage treatment plant, which will serve both the prison and surrounding communities.

In a ceremony attended by more than 200 state legislators, corrections workers and county and local officials, state Corrections Secretary Jeffrey A. Beard said the prison will hold dangerous inmates behind its razor-wired walls but also will provide classes and vocational training for those who want to seek a more productive life when they finish their sentences.

SCI-Fayette, while exempt from real estate taxes, already has brought improvements to the county, including the $12.5 million sewer system and treatment plant and new water lines, Beard said. The state paid for two-thirds of the sewer system, which is expected to be completed in September.

The prison also will prod the state to begin work in 2005 on a missing link of the Mon-Fayette Expressway between Brownsville and Uniontown, providing easier, more direct access to the prison, Beard and others said. Prison workers and visitors now must travel over narrow, rutted country roads, although state Department of Transportation crews have re-surfaced large sections of those roads and continued to work yesterday.

County Board Chairman Vincent Vicites and local officials said they could not have afforded those projects on their own. They believe those improvements now will make Luzerne and neighboring communities more attractive to other industries and businesses.

"Emotionally, I'm sad that we need more prisons," said Brownsville Mayor Norma Ryan. "But people will be coming through our community and they will need restaurants, gasoline, drugstores. Some people who work there may move into the area, and all that helps our tax base."

Corrections officers and employees from SCI Waynesburg and SCI Pittsburgh will be offered first dibs on about 700 jobs at SCI-Fayette. But corrections officials don't know yet how many will opt to transfer to SCI Fayette, or how many jobs will be left for new employees, Deputy Superintendent Mark Krysevig said.

Even so, prison proponents, who for years pushed for it to be built in Fayette County, said they still believe it will bring jobs for county residents -- some now and more later as transferred employees retire.

"We've got to look at the long haul here," said Ron DeSalvo, vice chairman of the Luzerne Board of Supervisors. "We'll have this prison for years. Before, we were an island community -- we had nothing. Things are going to happen now."

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.

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