HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania officials said Friday that they would close two prisons by June 30, the latest step to fill a swelling shortfall in the state budget.
Five of the 26 state correctional institutions - one each in Allegheny, Mercer, Wayne, Schuylkill and Luzerne Counties - are being considered for closure, the Department of Corrections announced. The department is to announce Jan. 26 which two it will shut down.
The closures will affect at least 800 employees and several thousand inmates, the department said. Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel said that every affected employee will be offered a job elsewhere, and that other sites in the 26-prison system have room for the inmates.
Projected to save between $89 million and $163 million a year, the move comes as the Wolf administration works to address a budget gap it says is nearing $600 million and could more than double next year.
How the Republican-controlled legislature responds could offer a glimpse of what lies ahead as the governor and lawmakers seek answers to the recurring budget problems.
Rep. Tedd Nesbit (R., Mercer) questioned the decision. "We need to study this and not make a quick decision, to make sure we're doing the best thing possible," said Nesbit, who said prison jobs have been good for his area.
State spending on corrections has surged over the years - to $2.23 billion in the last fiscal year from $1.3 billion a decade earlier. The current prison population is about 49,000 inmates, down from a high of approximately 51,700 in 2012, but still higher than in past decades. An analysis of the facilities says the population ranges from 1,105 inmates at SCI Retreat to 1,876 at SCI Pittsburgh.
Corrections officials said the cuts have no relation or impact on the planned opening this year of a $400 million institution to replace Graterford Prison in Montgomery County. Wetzel also said the department hoped to cut in half the number of people living in halfway houses, netting a savings of about $40 million.
Still, the president of the corrections officers' union questioned the decision and urged the legislature to hold hearings.
"It's disappointing the Wolf administration has already made a decision to close two prisons without any public input whatsoever and is now strangely leaving five communities twisting in the wind for several weeks," Jason Bloom, head of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said in a statement. "Closing these prisons will uproot families and damage the local economies in these communities. This administration continues to have extremely optimistic projections about the state prison population."
Sen. Wayne Fontana (D., Allegheny) said he understood the budgetary need to evaluate the prison system, but believes the weeks-long timeline to the closing is too short to allow legislators and the public to weigh in.
"They need to find the ones that are least effective, least efficient," he said. "I happen to think Pittsburgh isn't one of them and it should remain open."
The announcement comes days after Wolf announced that government agencies would consolidate human resources and information technology services, and that the state would expand its review process for new leases. The administration has also signaled it would work toward eliminating vacant positions, all part of the effort to address the financial woes without proposing broad-based taxes, like sales or income taxes.
"Both leading up to and in the governor's budget address on the 7th, there will be a variety of measures looking at streamlining government, making cuts where they're smart and looking for efficiencies to address the budget deficit," Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said Friday.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who has advocated prison reform, said the closures shouldn't be viewed as related to the state's other budget woes.
"We don't want to create employment just by putting people in jail," he said. "For years, I've been advocating for this, and it wasn't until the bad economy hit us that everybody started to jump on board with it. We do need to be careful of where we can save money, and if we can save money on corrections, we should."
Staff writer Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the state prison population at its 2012 peak.