- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania corrections officials on Monday tried to battle back suggestions from state senators that a move to close two prisons is designed to squeeze more money out of a Republican-controlled Legislature that has resisted a major tax increase to close a projected budget deficit.

The joint Senate committee hearing came three days before the date Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration planned to announce which prisons would be closed.

The reception for corrections officials was testy: The state Capitol hearing was packed with guards and their supporters, who are pressing lawmakers to oppose the closings. Prosecutors and the corrections officers’ union warned about an increase in inmate attacks on prison staff. Boosters for the prison communities, including some senators, cast it as an unfair and potentially crippling economic blow.

Senators representing districts with prisons on the short-list to be closed repeatedly questioned Corrections Secretary John Wetzel on the timing and motivation of the plan.

At one point, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said many people believe the prison-closing plan is being used as “leverage” against lawmakers. At another point, Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, said “that’s political” when Wetzel told him that the motivation to close them by July 1 is to book a full fiscal year of savings.

Still, Wetzel insisted that he would never put his staff or prison communities through such an ordeal for a political stunt, and he argued that the move is a natural response to a shrinking inmate population.

“This is the new normal, and if you look around the country, this is what you see,” Wetzel told senators.

In their testimony, staff from the nonprofit Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for the rights of prisoners, encouraged the closing of more prisons, saying the system is unduly expensive and is ill-suited to rehabilitate the drug addicts, mentally ill or poorly educated inmates who are packing prison cells.

Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania state corrections officers’ union, predicted the move would mean stacking inmates like “cord wood.” But the Department of Corrections contended that the remaining prisons would not approach unsafe or overcrowded conditions, and that the move to close two prisons could be made without jeopardizing the security of staff, inmates or the public. All inmates would be in permanent beds in either cells or dormitories, not in makeshift housing, department officials said.

Pennsylvania currently has 26 prisons. The two prisons to be closed will be chosen from a list of five: Frackville, Mercer, Pittsburgh, Retreat and Waymart. It would mean the transfer of some 2,500 inmates and trying to connect some 800 employees with openings elsewhere within the department.

The plan also involves eliminating 1,500 halfway-house bed spaces, many of which are occupied by recent parolees who have no immediate living alternative.

Some lawmakers raised questions about Pennsylvania’s growing parole system. Recently enacted limits on prison sentences for parole violators have kept more parolees on the street and contributed to Pennsylvania’s shrinking inmate population, corrections and parole officials say.

David Freed, the Republican district attorney in Cumberland County, home to the Camp Hill prison that would receive many of the inmates from closing facilities, called the plan to close two prisons “hasty.”

Freed questioned whether having fewer prisons will increase pressure to parole more offenders and how parolees will successfully move back into public when the department is eliminating so many halfway-house beds.

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