Pa. Corrections officials recommend shuttering state prison in Luzerne County. But Gov. Tom Wolf will have the final word

Gov. Tom Wolf (Commonwealth Media Services photo)

After hearing hours of public input and reviewing dozens of pages of written concerns, state Corrections officials have recommended moving ahead with plans to close a state prison in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced its final recommendation to shutter SCI-Retreat, a 1,200-bed correctional facility in Luzerne County, in a 600-page report it submitted to Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday.

Wolf’s is expected to hand down his final decision on the planned closing “in the near future,” corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said in an email Wednesday afternoon. 

The report comes five months after state officials announced they wanted to shut down the prison, which mainly houses low- and medium-security offenders.

That announcement in August 2019 triggered a lengthy review process, which required the department to justify the shutdown after studying its potential social and economic impacts. The review included a public hearing in Luzerne County, meetings with locally elected officials, and two town hall forums with prison staff. 

But local officials and prison staff have maintained all along that the Corrections department would not let itself be swayed by local residents, who said the prison was integral to their rural economy.

Closing the prison would affect roughly 890 jobs in the region, according to state estimates included in the report. 

“This process has been a sham from the beginning — and it’s a dangerous one because it puts money over public safety,” Larry Blackwell, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officer Association, said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

Acrimony towards the Corrections department reached a fever pitch in October, when Corrections Secretary John Wetzel made remarks at a public hearing in Luzerne County suggesting that the prison closure was inevitable.

Wetzel’s comments, which included profanity, were caught on a recording of the meeting that the Corrections department posted to its website. 

The criticism that ensued led Wolf to remove Wetzel from the decision-making panel.

But a group of state senators who represent areas near the prison said Wednesday that Wetzel’s ouster did little to restore their faith in the review. 

In a joint statement, Sens. John Gordner, R-Columbia; Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, and John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, said the Corrections Department “clearly gave less than a good faith effort during the hearing process, and we do not believe it was fair to the workers of SCI Retreat, their families or the communities of Luzerne County.” 

If Wolf green-lights the prison closure, the 955 people currently incarcerated at Retreat will be transferred to other state corrections facilities. 

Corrections staff will assign transfers based on inmates’ individual security designations, as well as their educational and medical and mental health needs, according to the report. 

The 397 union-represented employees at the facility will be guaranteed state jobs within 65 miles of Retreat, with the option of taking assignments anywhere in the Commonwealth. 

Throughout the review, corrections officials have maintained that closing the aging prison facility is the best way to plug a $140 million budget gap.

Transferring the prison’s 955 inmates to other state facilities could save the Corrections department $20 million this year and $40 million next year, according to an Aug. 29 memo from Amy Schwenk, Wetzel’s Chief of Staff, that was included in the report. 

Officials also say the shutdown will not jeopardize public safety, since Pennsylvania’s crime rate and prison populations have been in decline for almost a decade.

The state has reduced its prison population by 5,300 people since 2012, and anticipates another 1,900-person reduction in the new fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

As of Dec. 31, state corrections facilities incarcerated a total of 47,590 people, according to a monthly population report.