Pennsylvan­ia plans to close prison in Luzerne County

The Morning Call - - LOCAL/STATE - By Marc Levy

HAR­RIS­BURG — Pennsylvan­ia prison of­fi­cials are plan­ning to close another prison, as the in­mate pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to de­cline and prison costs rise, law­mak­ers and union of­fi­cials said Wed­nes­day.

Prison of­fi­cials briefed law­mak­ers and Re­treat state prison staff in Luzerne County about their plans to close the fa­cil­ity but have not re­leased de­tails to the public.

Two Democrats, Sen. John Yu­dichak and Rep. Ger­ald Mullery, whose dis­tricts in­clude Re­treat, said they would fight the clo­sure.

Both law­mak­ers said that clos­ing the fa­cil­ity, as well as the sep­a­rate planned clo­sure of a nearby state in­sti­tu­tion for the in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled, would dev­as­tate the area’s econ­omy.

“This is nearly 900 jobs and over $500 mil­lion in an­nual eco­nomic im­pact to Luzerne County, so when you take that out, it’s go­ing to sting,” Yu­dichak said.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment.

The state correction­s of­fi­cers’ union said it ap­pre­ci­ated a pledge by the Depart­ment of Correction­s not to lay off Re­treat’s em­ploy­ees, but it said the clo­sure makes no sense given ques­tions about Pennsylvan­ia’s pa­role sys­tem and im­pend­ing changes to it.

“It’s very clear that price tags are be­ing placed be­fore public safety,” Larry Black­well, pres­i­dent of the Pennsylvan­ia State Correction­s Of­fi­cers As­so­ci­a­tion, said in a state­ment.

Sec­re­tary of Correction­s John Wet­zel in July or­dered a re­view af­ter five Pennsylvan­ia parolees were charged in quick suc­ces­sion with six homi­cides, most with con­nec­tions to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. The vic­tims in­cluded two chil­dren, three women and a Pitts­burgh po­lice of­fi­cer.

On Wed­nes­day, the depart­ment is­sued a re­port rec­om­mend­ing changes to the sys­tem, in­clud­ing es­tab­lish­ing a statewide pol­icy that dic­tates when to in­car­cer­ate parolees who have new charges filed against them. The re­view other­wise re­ported no ev­i­dence of mis­con­duct or pol­icy or rule vi­o­la­tions that could have “rea­son­ably” changed the out­comes in the five cases.

Yu­dichak said clos­ing Re­treat is driven by costs.

Prison of­fi­cials told him the ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to close a $140 mil­lion deficit and will un­veil its plan to close Re­treat on Thurs­day, Yu­dichak said.

Re­treat, about 10 miles west of Wilkes-Barre, has about 400 em­ploy­ees and is at full ca­pac­ity with al­most 1,100 in­mates. Yu­dichak said the state has pledged to of­fer Re­treat’s em­ploy­ees po­si­tions at about a half-dozen other state prisons that are within 65 miles.

Pennsylvan­ia’s state prison pop­u­la­tion is about 48,000, af­ter reach­ing nearly 52,000 in 2012.

Wolf’s ad­min­is­tra­tion closed a state prison in Pitts­burgh in 2017. Re­treat’s orig­i­nal build­ings date back to the 19th cen­tury and it has the fewest beds of any of Pennsylvan­ia’s 25 state prisons.

Pennsylvan­ia’s prisons cost $2 bil­lion to op­er­ate, a cost that rises al­most ev­ery year in a $34 bil­lion state op­er­at­ing bud­get.

The Depart­ment of Correction­s has said the in­mate count is drop­ping be­cause courts are sen­tenc­ing fewer de­fen­dants to prison and be­cause a 2012 law put lim­its on the length of a prison stay for pa­role vi­o­la­tors.

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