HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania is 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 northeastern Pennsylvania about their plans to close the facility in next year, but have not released details to the public.
Two Luzerne County 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.
Retreat is particularly vulnerable: its original buildings date back to the 19th century, and it has the fewest beds of any of Pennsylvania’s 25 state prisons.
The state corrections officers’ union said it appreciated a pledge by the Department of Corrections not to lay off Retreat’s employees, but it argued that closing the prison 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 15 changes to the system, including establishing a policy that dictates when to incarcerate parolees who have new charges filed against them and adding a couple triggers for when a parole violator could go back to prison.
The review otherwise reported no evidence of misconduct or policy or rule violations that could have “reasonably” changed the outcomes in the five cases. It also said the parole rate for inmates who committed violent crimes has dropped over the past decade, while the arrest rate of parolees has been stable.
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.
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.
Mullery accused the administration of keeping prison numbers down by leaving parole violators on the streets, including some who violate the law again.
The dropping inmate figure is “disingenuous,” Mullery said.
Some rank-and-file parole agents, meanwhile, say they have been stripped of discretion in their ability to temporarily remove a potentially dangerous parolee from the street.
Department of Corrections officials have said it is more effective to try to work with non-violent parole violators through workshops and treatment programs rather than locking them up for minor parole violations.