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Editorial: Locked up / It's too late to reverse course on SCI Pittsburgh

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

State senators are lining up to save the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh. Republicans Jane Orie and Tim Murphy, along with Democrats Jack Wagner and Jay Costa, told a Senate hearing Wednesday that the Woods Run prison should stay open.

But it's too little too late.

Local jobs, of course, are at stake. If that were not enough of a spur, there is the added expense that Allegheny and nearby counties will face in transporting prisoners between courts and the replacement prison in Fayette County, about 60 miles away. The overriding issue, though, must be how best to run a secured, $58 million institution.

The 120-year-old local facility, the oldest in the Pennsylvania system, is outdated, outmoded and outstripping the cost of most state prisons. Built to house 1,528 inmates, it holds 1,740 today. The Department of Corrections figures it costs state taxpayers $33,277 per inmate to run the prison, compared with the systemwide average of $27,625 and the $20,000 average at the state's new prisons.

Defenders of SCI Pittsburgh say some of the higher cost is due to its 24-bed mental health unit, 64-bed special-needs unit and long-term segregation unit -- sections set aside for troubled or troublesome inmates. While that may be true, there is no denying the inefficiency of a building opened during the administration of Chester Arthur.

If the prison were to stay open another five or 10 years, it would need at least $20 million in repairs. The kitchen and dining area need to be replaced, the power plant needs new boilers, the support buildings need new roofs and a 20-foot section of the exterior stone wall is shifting and could collapse.

It's no surprise that the prison has been recommended for closing by successive independent committees since 1944. And those recommendations become more insistent after every flooding, riot or escape.

There is no doubt that having a state prison within city limits improves its access to medical, psychiatric, vocational and other support services. Such a location puts more volunteers at its disposal and makes it easier for families and friends to visit.

But it's important to note that Pennsylvania inmates are not assigned to a specific prison by geography, but according to the level of security and type of rehabilitative services needed. In general, the state also tries to house inmates closer to home than in the past. So long as the Corrections Department can provide the necessary security and services throughout its network, it hardly matters where a prison is located. While we're sympathetic to families that have difficulty visiting an inmate who is many miles away, the state and the Pennsylvania Prison Society continue to help them overcome visitation obstacles.

The good news about SCI Pittsburgh is that the Corrections Department, because of the state's rising (unfortunately) prison population, would now like to keep at least the more modern sections of the facility open through 2004. SCI Fayette will open early next year, followed by SCI Forest in Forest County in early 2004.

By then the state will have a firmer grip on its needs for prison cells and what sort of role a downsized Western Pen might play. Regardless of SCI Pittsburgh's ultimate fate, it's a decision that must be driven by what's best for the inmates and what's most efficient for the state -- not whether Allegheny County-based employees and service providers can stand a longer commute.

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