WAYNE COUNTY - In light of the news of the potential closure of the state prison in Wayne County, SCI Waymart, both state and local officials issued comments of concern.

Senator Lisa Baker (R-20th) told The News Eagle that there was no request for public involvement in the process, and there should have been. “We got a call Friday morning,” Baker said. Two of the five prisons under consideration for closing down are in her district, SCI Waymart and SCI Retreat, which is in Luzerne County.

Secretary John Wetzel, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) made the announcement Friday, January 6, that two of five institutions on the list will be earmarked for closing by June 30, 2017, in order to save money. The decision of which two is to be made by January 26, according to the DOC.

She said she contacted the DOC directly with her concerns, although her input or that of other legislators, was not requested. The Senator stated that legislation has been re-introduced to require that there be public hearings when the DOC plans to close a facility.

Waymart, she added, is unique in that this institution provides needed treatment for the inmates in the state prison system that have mental health issues. That in itself will make the costs to run SCI Waymart higher than the others, she said, but that does not necessarily imply the institution did anything wrong.

Huge local impact

Newly elected Rep. Jonathan Fritz was swift to issue a statement of concern.
“Earlier today, the governor’s administration announced plans to close two state prisons. SCI Waymart is one of five facilities being considered for closure,” Fritz said. “I find this very troubling from both an economic perspective and a security perspective. The closure of SCI Waymart, and the subsequent loss of hundreds of family-sustaining jobs, would be devastating for our local economy. Further, with our state prisons already over capacity, I am concerned about the public safety impacts of this hasty decision. In this era of open government, I call on the administration to share its rationale for this proposal.”

Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R-Susquehanna/Wayne), a Honesdale resident and most recently a Wayne County Commissioner, took the oath of office as State Representative on Tuesday, Jan. 5.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration on Friday announced plans to close two state prisons. Institutions under consideration include SCI Frackville in Schuylkill County, SCI Mercer in Mercer County, SCI Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, SCI Retreat in Luzerne County and SCI Waymart in Wayne County.

The Wayne County Commissioners also issued a statement:
“The Wayne County Commissioners learned on Friday January 6, 2017 that SCI Waymart is on a list of potential closures by the PA Department of Corrections. Since that notification, the Commissioners have studied the data related to SCI Waymart and have been in conversations with Superintendent Sommers as well as our State Legislators and Governor’s Northeast Office. The economic impact of closing SCI Waymart would be an enormous loss to Wayne County as well as our entire Northeast Region. The Forensic services that the facility provides to our regional county prisons is also a strong factor to consider in deciding to continue operations at SCI Waymart.

“The Commissioners will be working diligently to provide factual information to the necessary decision makers at the Commonwealth, and to do whatever we can to insure the continued operations of SCI Waymart in Canaan Township, Wayne County.”

*** Governor agrees with report

In response, Governor Tom Wolf released the following statement:
“Our commonwealth faces a serious budget deficit that means we have limited funds to provide the services the people of Pennsylvania expect from their government and we must make government more efficient to avoid broad cuts to education, job creation programs and social services for the most vulnerable.

“Department of Corrections’ announcement of these cost-saving measures is exactly the kind of action that we must take to ensure we can continue to invest in middle class families and Pennsylvania’s future.
“DOC believes we are able to close prisons without security risk because of the historic reduction in the inmate population and crime is down. By investing in the things that make Pennsylvania a better place – like reducing recidivism and improving our schools – we can ensure the long-term prosperity and safety of our commonwealth.

“I chose to invest in schools – not prisons – because it’s both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. The future of Pennsylvania depends on making investments in what works and I’ll do everything I can to ensure we’re investing in all our kids and their futures.”

*** By June 30, 2017

Secretary Wetzel met with union officials and the agency’s leadership team to discuss the plan to close two prisons and reduce by half the community corrections population by June 30, 2017, as part of spending reductions in response to the state budget deficit.

 “We have implemented a variety of cost savings initiatives over the past several years yet we are again in the position where the Department of Corrections must make significant reductions because of the dire budget forecast,” said Wetzel. “The most significant reduction we can make as an agency is a prison closure.”

“Every affected employee will be offered a position elsewhere in the Department of Corrections,” said Wetzel. “We understand that moving to another facility may be difficult, but we will try to make the transition as seamless as possible.”

Wetzel said that the DOC can close prisons without a security risk because of the historic reduction in the inmate population. Also, an additional one thousand unused beds were recently made available at SCI Camp Hill making it feasible to close a second facility.

The department will announce its final decision on January 26.
In making its decision the agency 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.

*** Challenge to close SCI Waymart

SCI Waymart and SCI Pittsburgh, however, present significant challenges for closure.
SCI Waymart serves inmates with serious mental health conditions.
SCI Pittsburgh is a diagnostic and classification center for incoming inmates and provides medical specialty services, such as an oncology unit. Transition of these services would be extremely difficult and the agency would incur significant additional costs.
SCI Waymart is unique in Pennsylvania DOC in that a portion of the institution is reserved to treat psychiatric inmates from within the PA DOC.

The institution, on top Farview Mountain in Canaan Township overlooking Waymart, has a commanding view and is noted for its landmark chimney. The facility opened in 1912 as Farview State Mental Hospital, a maximum security forensic psychiatric institution. In 1989 the facility was transferred to the PA DOC and became SCI Waymart.

SCI Waymart had an inmate population of 1,382 as of November 30, 2016. Of that number, 81 prisoners were housed in the 82-bed Waymart Forensic Treatment Center.

(Three other state prison facilities have much smaller mental health units: Graterford, 15; Rockville, 14; Pittsburgh, 7.)

SCI Waymart was at 90.8% capacity.

There was a staff of 663 as of that date. Those residing in Wayne County, 173, make up 25% of the staff.
Statewide there were 47,887 in the inmate population; the state prison system was at 103.9% capacity.

 *** Hiring freeze

In anticipation of those closures, the DOC initiated a hiring freeze which allowed vacancies to remain open so that they could be filled by employees displaced by the closures. Similar actions will be taken in this case.

It was only two days before the January 6th announcement that the PA State Auditor General’s Office issued a press release about overtime payments for correctional officers at SCI Waymart. The findings of Auditor General Eugene DePasquale showed that the lack of sufficient corrections officers due to a hiring freeze prompted annual overtime payments to more than triple over a four-year period, from $1 million to more than $3.1 million.

The analysis indicated that SCI Waymart could have potentially saved more than $1.2 million during the period July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2015 if there had not been hiring freezes and it had been able to hire correctional officers to fill vacancies.

Amy Worden, Press Secretary, PA DOC stated that they will continue to work to reduce overtime, and noted that the hiring freeze was out of the agency’s control and occurred in a prior administration.
 
*** SCI Waymart’s costs

According to the PA DOC, the budget for SCI Waymart, 2017-2018, is $99,478,000, the second highest of the five prisons under consideration for closure.

Estimated annual net savings is $82,000,000, the most of the five prisons.
The annual cost per inmate was $66,520 for 2015-2016, the most of the five prisons.
Employee expenditures total $83,410,000, the most of the five prisons. Of that, salaries total $42,739,284.
Much more information is available at the DOC’s website under “Prison Closures.”

*** Help for those impacted

Wetzel said he is committed to providing complete, timely information to all of those involved, including employees, inmates, legislators, and the affected communities.

Every affected employee will be offered a position within the department, according to the DOC. The DOC's Human Resources staff will provide informational meetings to assist employees who are impacted by these closures.

Inmates will be transferred to other facilities, based on treatment, programming and security needs.
In addition to the closures, the department is considering several other internal cost-saving measures, such as reducing staff overtime and reducing capacity at community corrections facilities (or halfway houses).
The department closed two institutions - SCI Cresson in Cambria County and SCI Greensburg, Westmoreland County – in 2013.

The DOC has created a dedicated email account (ra-crdocclose@pa.gov) and a toll-free number (888-316-8950) for staff, inmate families and others seeking additional information.

For additional information, please visit the Prison Closures page on the DOC’s website at www.cor.pa.gov.