Of­fi­cials dis­cuss im­pact of pos­si­bly clos­ing SCI-Frackville

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - FRONT PAGE - By AMY MARCHIANO Staff Writer

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.

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