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Fontana Tours SCI-Pittsburgh and meets with prison officials on possible closing

 


State Sen. Wayne D. Fontana (D-Allegheny) last week toured SCI-Pittsburgh and met with prison workers and officials on the facility’s possible closing.

The 24-acre SCI-Pittsburgh facility on the city’s North Side is one of five prisons across the state under consideration for closure. The Wolf Administration recently disclosed that it plans on closing two of those five prisons by July to help bridge the state’s looming $600 million budget deficit.

“Visiting this expansive prison and discussing its potential closing with workers and officials reinforces my belief that this decision is being made too hastily and that the Department of Corrections must strongly consider the economic and community impact of closing the facility,” Sen. Fontana said.

In addition to SCI-Pittsburgh, the Corrections Department is also weighing the possible closure of SCI Mercer (Mercer County), SCI Retreat (Luzerne), SCI Frackville (Schuylkill) and SCI Waymart (Wayne). In making its decision, the department claims it is taking into consideration the ages, sizes, locations, operational costs, and specialty functions of the prisons, as well as economic impact on the affected communities. The department is expected to announce its final decision on January 26.

Mr. Fontana criticized Department of Corrections officials for not being “responsive to questions and concerns.” He said he originally planned on inviting fellow senators to a Pittsburgh hearing in conjunction with the tour, but decided to cancel the hearing after department officials refused to participate in the hearing.

“If we cannot get reliable answers to the many questions and concerns raised about both the decision to close prisons as well as the criteria the department is using to make its decision, there is no point to having a hearing,” Sen. Fontana said.

“In my view, the department’s silence is very disappointing and only adds credence to the rampant rumors over why and how these facilities are being closed.”

Last week, Sen. Fontana sent a letter to Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel and Gov. Tom Wolf objecting to the possible closure of the state prison in Pittsburgh. In the letter, Fontana underscored the ‘human impact’ that closing SCI-Pittsburgh would have on over 500 prison workers, the economy and programs such as the drug addiction and veterans’ treatment programs that are unique to the Pittsburgh facility.

Mr. Fontana said he is also working on legislation that would require a local public hearing at least 30 days before any state prison could be closed.

In his prison closing announcement earlier this month, Mr. Wetzel conceded that there are significant problems to closing SCI-Pittsburgh. He noted the facility is a diagnostic and classification center for incoming inmates and provides medical specialty services, such as an oncology unit. Wetzel added that the transition of these services throughout the state’s prison system would be extremely difficult and his agency would incur significant additional costs.

“While I understand and support the Wolf Administration’s efforts to cut state spending, it is imperative that this prison assessment be done openly, carefully and thoroughly. Based on how the department is refusing to engage impacted communities and their elected representatives on this critical issue, I have to wonder if this matter is being handled fairly – and what may be really driving the department’s final decision,” Sen. Fontana said.

Mr. Fontana planed on taking part in a joint legislative hearing on the prison issue scheduled for January 23 at the Capitol in Harrisburg. That hearing is being conducted jointly by the Senate Democratic and Republican policy committees, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said he hopes corrections officials are more open and forthcoming by then.

 

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