Barletta to Gov. Wolf: Gather All Information before Closing Prisons
WASHINGTON – Congressman Lou Barletta (PA-11) today formally requested that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf delay his announced plans to close two state prisons so that all relevant information may be gathered and considered. Barletta sent Wolf a letter asking that the governor consider the economic toll of the loss of jobs, and also the impact on public safety and the welfare of correctional officers such closures would cause. The Wolf Administration has announced that two state correction institutions (SCI) would be closed out of a pool of five being considered. One of the facilities, SCI-Retreat, is within Barletta’s 11th District, while two others, SCI-Frackville and SCI-Waymart, are nearby and employ dozens of Barletta’s constituents.
“I recognize that it is your decision, and yours alone, to open or close state prisons, and that my ability, as a federal representative, to influence your choices are limited,” Barletta wrote to Wolf. “That being said, as an advocate for my constituents, I raise several concerns that I believe must be publicly answered before any facility closures are announced.”
Barletta first questioned the speed at which the process is proceeding. The congressman noted that the Wolf Administration announced the plans to close two prisons on January 6, 2017, with a stated deadline for a decision of January 26, 2017. The length of time between the announcement and the decision date amounts to only 13 full business days.
“I respectfully question how this compressed timetable will allow your administration to fully vet the impact that the closures will have,” Barletta wrote. “As you know, this decision will greatly impact the regional economy and officer safety, and even inmate safety.”
SCI-Retreat, located in Luzerne County, employs approximately 400 individuals within the boundaries of Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District. SCI-Frackville and SCI-Waymart, while physically located outside the district lines, combine to employ about 80 residents of the 11th District. Barletta observed that closing the state facilities would have an enormous economic impact, which would ripple throughout the region.
“For example, closing SCI-Retreat would immediately move Newport Township from a first class city to a second class city, impacting numerous services to the area,” Barletta wrote. “During a recent meeting with John Yudichak and Gerry Mullery, Greater Nanticoke Area School Superintendent Ronald Grevera noted that the closure could lead to the loss of 90 families and 200 students, and that such a large loss of families cannot be absorbed by the district at the same time that the second-largest employer in the district leaves. Senator Yudichak further noted that closing SCI-Retreat will jeopardize $1.6 million in funding for the school district, which would threaten important educational programs like Pre-K instruction for every student. This is an important issue that must be addressed, which is why a delay in your announcement is warranted.”
Nevertheless, Barletta noted that it appears that fiscal calculations appear to be driving the governor’s desire to close two state prisons. The congressman argued that closing the facilities as a cost-saving measure demonstrated a misunderstanding of the purpose and role of prisons.
“I believe that prisons, and, for that manner, halfway houses, should be managed in a way that keeps our communities safe,” Barletta said. “We shouldn’t be closing prisons simply to save money – these facilities should be closed when we have addressed the underlying criminal element so the need for the location no longer exists.”
In the letter to Gov. Wolf, Barletta highlighted the safety of correctional officers as a paramount concern.
“It is also important that any closure does not harm the prison guards charged with protecting the public from violent or mentally ill prisoners. Officer safety must be taken into account,” Barletta wrote. “The announcement noted that prisoners may be shifted to unused beds at SCI-Camp Hill, which, while physically located just outside of my Congressional District, employs a number of my constituents. As you know, 27 years ago, overcrowding at SCI-Camp Hill led to 3 days of rioting that destroyed half the prison and injured 123 people, including 69 staff members, 41 inmates, and 7 first responders. Given this history, a full public hearing and comment period should be held before any announcement is made.”
In addition to officer safety, the welfare of inmates ought to be considered, Barletta wrote.
“I have also been informed that the Department of Corrections recently changed capacity levels from operational capacity, which was the standard in December, to emergency capacity, with little prior notice,” Barletta wrote. “My understanding is that this means a prison can place beds in common areas, gymnasiums, and any space that is open. This change can obviously result in great harm to correctional officers, but also has the potential to put inmates themselves at risk. This invites lawsuits from inmates that would negate any potential cost savings from prison closures. I understand that a significant number of prisoners at SCI-Retreat are classified as mentally ill, which means they are provided with specialized care. The rapid movement of inmates to other prisons without a full vetting seems problematic. Further, if one were to use the safer operational capacity metric, SCI-Retreat is one inmate away from capacity. This is yet another topic that should be examined before any closure announcement.”
Finally, Barletta expressed concern about the stress that would be placed on the local court systems should such prison closures occur. And he noted that he was still awaiting information discussed during a meeting he had with John Wetzel, the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, on January 10, 2017.
“I have yet to receive information from your secretary of corrections, who asked for assistance in obtaining federal contracts as a way to supplement funding within the state corrections budget,” Barletta wrote. “Given what appears to be the lack of a pre-existing relationship in this area and a number of questions that must be answered before potential contracts can be considered, I urge you to delay any announcement on closures until these questions can be addressed.”
Barletta concluded the letter with a final plea for more time and study before a decision is made on prison closures.
“As you know, closing a prison isn’t a simple endeavor that can be easily reversed if capacity needs change,” Barletta said. “Your decision has an immediate impact on the safety of thousands of Pennsylvania prisoners, and the men and women who guard them, in addition to the local communities where they reside. Safety, not simply economics, must be publicly addressed to provide transparency to all involved. It therefore seems prudent to further study this issue and delay any decisions until these concerns can be addressed.”
The letter was addressed to Gov. Wolf and copied to a number of other recipients: state Sen. John Yudichak (14th District); state Rep. Gerald Mullery (119th District); Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis; Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed; Luzerne County Manager David Petri; and Don Williams, president of Voices of J.O.E., a political advocacy group dedicated to giving a voice to the families of correctional workers, and correctional workers themselves, in order to improve on the job safety conditions for correctional workers.
Please click here for a .pdf version of the letter from Rep. Barletta to Gov. Wolf.