Pennsylvania moves to close Luzerne County state prison, as state lawmakers voice opposition

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

Pennsylvania’s top prison official confirmed on Thursday a proposal to close a Luzerne County state prison, a move that drew swift condemnation from local lawmakers and a statewide labor union.

Shutting down the the State Correctional Institution at Retreat would save taxpayers $60 million over the next two years and help the Department of Corrections close a $140 million budget gap, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a statement released by his office.

SCI Retreat currently holds 1,100 incarcerated people and employs 400 corrections officers and prison staff, according to the department. 

The current inmate population will be moved to other state prisons, Wetzel said. The department will not lay off any employees, and instead offer them jobs at other corrections institutions — including the six facilities within 65 miles of Retreat.

The proposed shutdown comes at the end of the department’s largest-ever one-year decrease in prison populations, Wetzel said.

The department had 46,482 prisoners in its custody at the beginning of June 2019, Wetzel said, 1,900 fewer inmates than last year and a 10 percent decrease from the all-time high population of 51,757 in 2012.

Wetzel also said on Thursday that the Corrections department will shutter the Sharon Community Corrections Center in Mercer County, which houses parolees and inmates in diversionary programs.

Larry Blackwell, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, called the shutdown ill-timed, given a recent string of homicides allegedly committed by Pennsylvania parolees. 

The homicides drew scrutiny to Pennsylvania’s community supervision programs. An internal review by the Corrections department, which Wetzel released on Wednesday, found that all the parolees had qualified for release and did not recommend any changes to the state’s parole guidelines. 

In an emailed statement on Thursday, however, Blackwell said the alleged homicides show that “the prison system is in need of some stability.”

“It’s very clear that price tags are being placed before public safety,” Blackwell said. “As we have seen recently by the alleged actions of parolees, that is a dangerous gamble with the lives of innocent Pennsylvanians.”

Blackwell pledged that the union “will do everything we can to fight this closure.” 

He’ll be joined in that fight by lawmakers who represent Luzerne County in the General Assembly. 

Republican Sens. Lisa Baker and John Gordner and their Democratic colleague John Yudichak issued a statement on Wednesday opposing the closure of SCI Retreat.

They noted the proposal closely follows news that Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration plans to shutter two state centers for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. One of them, White Haven State Center, is also in Luzerne County. 

The closings pose “a devastating and dramatic blow to the families of Luzerne County,” the senators said on Wednesday. 

“We will voice our opposition through every means at our disposal,” the senators said in a statement. “While we understand the constraints and challenges of the state budget, Luzerne County is being asked to shoulder an unfair burden of responsibility for balancing the budget.”

State law requires the Department of Corrections to undertake a three-month review process prior to closing a state prison. That review must include at least one public hearing, which has been scheduled for Oct. 17 in Luzerne County, Wetzel said. 

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