Officials discuss impact of possibly closing SCI-Frackville
Legislative, local government and economic development leaders, union representatives and workers are worried about what might happen with the news of State Correctional InstitutionFrackville on a list for potential closure.
“This is something that will be devastating to my legislative district. This is a body blow that my legislative district does not get up from,” state Rep. Neal P. Goodman, D-123, Mahanoy City, said Thursday.
The state government is the second largest employer in Schuylkill County, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry, Center for Workforce Information and Analysis for the second quarter of 2016, the most recent information available. The current unemployment rate for the county is 5.7 percent.
The state Department of Corrections announced Jan. 6 that five prisons are being considered for closure. They include SCI-Frackville, SCIMercer in Mercer County, SCI-Retreat in Luzerne County, SCI-Waymart in Wayne County and SCI-Pittsburgh in Allegheny County. A final decision will be announced Jan. 26.
“We have implemented a variety of cost-saving initiatives over the past several years, yet we are again in the position where the Department of Corrections must make significant reductions because of the dire budget forecast. The most significant reduction we can make as an agency is a prison closure,”
Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said.
Employees will be offered a position elsewhere with the DOC, Wetzel said.
Robert Storm, a vice president of Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said Thursday he and other individuals met with Wetzel on Jan. 6 during a meeting.
“They never asked anybody’s input prior to this,” he said.
The association represents 325 members who include corrections officers, maintenance and food service at the prison in Frackville, he said.
“This is all self-inflicted,” he said of the troubles the DOC is having.
For example, he said, “If you would staff the prisons correctly, you would not have the high overtime.”
He said they are being told that employees will have jobs; however, what those jobs are is yet to be determined. If the employees are offered a position, they have to take it or they will be furloughed.
“You are not getting much of a choice,” he said.
All legislative leaders that represent Schuylkill County said they were surprised with the announcement. County commissioners are also alarmed at the news.
Schuylkill County Commissioner Gary J. Hess said the potential closure could leave a “big mark on the economy.” He said families are relying on the income from work at the prison to provide for them.
He does not understand why the prison is even being considered.
Commissioner Frank J. Staudenmeier said he is puzzled as to why it might close.
“To me, it does not make any sense at all to close the newest prison that you have. Typically you would start with the oldest structure, not your newest structure. We will do everything that we possibly can to make sure this does not happen,” he said.
Commissioners Chairman George F. Halcovage Jr. did not return a call for comment.
The prison is in Ryan Township. DOC data show as of Jan. 4, there were 409 employees who worked at the prison. Of those, 54 percent of them live in the county. Built in 1987, the maximum security prison can house all levels of prisoners. It is the newest of the five prisons on the list; the oldest prison is the one in Pittsburgh, having been built in 1882; Mercer, 1978; Retreat, 1938; Waymart, 1912.
Susan McNaughton, communications director for the state Department of Correc- tions, said in an email Thursday several factors were considered when deciding which prisons to consider for closure but not limited to: age of the facility, operational cost; inmate cost; capacity; number of employees; speciality functions/housing units; needed facility upgrades and their costs; capital projects and/or upgrades underway and their costs and economic impact a closure would have on the community.
Closing Frackville would yield an estimated annual savings of $44 million; Mercer, $46 million; Pittsburgh, $81 million; Retreat, $45 million and Waymart, $82 million, according to the Facility Analysis 2017. However, the closure of Waymart and Pittsburgh present “significant challenges” the DOC said if they were closed because of the level of services they provide. McNaughton said a meeting was held Tuesday with those from the Department of General Services, state Department of Labor and Industry, Department of Community and Economic Development and others to get an economic analysis from their departments what the potential closure could mean.
“We will make everything public on the 26th,” she said.
Guidelines for the closure of a prison is on the DOC website, www.cor.pa.gov.
Goodman said he and the other legislative leaders are doing what they can to prevent the closure of the prison.
“I am not going to allow a prison in my legislative district to close,” he said.
He spoke with Wetzel and Gov. Tom Wolf about the issue.
“Frackville does not belong on a list like this,” Goodman said.
He believes after the facts are carefully examined Frackville will stand out. For example, he said the facility is the newest, is in a good location off Interstate 81, in excellent condition, has the lowest overtime cost. The daily cost to house an inmate at Frackville is the second lowest for fiscal year 2015-16 at $124.07, Mercer is the lowest at $106.83. The facility in Waymart is the highest at a cost of $182.25, DOC data show.
“This is one of your shining stars,” Goodman said.
State Rep. Mike Tobash, R-125, Pottsville, said the announcement came without warning.
“It kind of came from left field,” he said.
He said the legislative leaders and all involved are working to make the case to keep Frackville open.