Brookline – January 9, 2017 – State Sen. Wayne D. Fontana (D-Allegheny) today sent a letter to state Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel and Gov. Tom Wolf objecting to the possible closure of the state prison in Pittsburgh. Citing a state budget shortfall, the state Department of Corrections is looking to close two state prisons by July.

Sen. Fontana also discussed his legislative proposal that would require a local public hearing before any state prison could be closed.
Following is the text of Fontana’s letter:

Dear Secretary Wetzel:

I am writing with regard to the recent announcement by the Department of Corrections relative to the upcoming planned closure of two state correctional facilities. More specifically, I want to share my deep concern that SCI Pittsburgh is included on the list of potential facility closures.

While I am sure you have already heard or will hear from stakeholders with an interest in one or more of the five prisons on the list, I want to reiterate what the department itself has said about SCI Pittsburgh and how this particular facility would “present a significant challenge for closure.” SCI Pittsburgh is distinctive from other institutions in that it serves as a diagnostic and classification center that facilitates the reception of incoming inmates from the western part of the state and provides medical specialty services.

While I understand the cost of operating these facilities and providing the programs and services within, the cost of such a potential closure reaches far beyond simply closing the door and turning off the lights. At the end of the day, this is more than just a decision to close a facility – and SCI Pittsburgh is more than just a building. This decision impacts our prison workers, economy and cuts off the rehabilitative efforts underway in that facility. For over 500 people in the Pittsburgh region, SCI Pittsburgh provides the jobs that sustain them and provides a means to self-sufficiency at a time when our unemployment rate remains one of the highest in the nation. We must also keep in mind that this facility includes a specialized unit for veterans on whom we cannot turn our backs.

For many years the public discussion in the corrections community has been centered around treatment and rehabilitation where possible. SCI Pittsburgh provides not only housing to inmates but specialized services to inmates who are struggling with substance abuse and addiction issues. At a time when the worsening opioid epidemic is destroying families and crippling communities across the state, it is alarming that we would potentially close the doors to one of the few facilities that provides the treatment and rehabilitative services for those suffering from addiction.

It’s no secret that between lagging revenue numbers and a growing deficit, Pennsylvania is on shaky financial ground. I certainly understand and support the need to discuss efficiencies and cost saving ideas such as consolidating and streamlining programs and services where it makes sound fiscal, logistical and practical sense, especially in the area of corrections. However, given the infrastructure investment of over $30 million the state put into this facility just 10 years ago coupled with the cost savings met by the department due to this institution’s proximity to the many specialty hospitals in our region makes SCI Pittsburgh unique.

While consolidating some of these prison facilities might make good fiscal sense on paper, we need to ensure that we’re making the best decisions based on the human impact, which is far more valuable than what lies on any budget spreadsheet.

I would also like to express my displeasure with the time frame of the closure plan. Decisions of this magnitude cannot and should not be made in haste. Making a decision to close a prison facility within the next two weeks fits that definition. A decision like this warrants a public discussion within our community among workers, families and Corrections officials. The department’s statement announcing the closure plan indicated that you are committed to providing complete, timely information to all those involved including employees, inmates, legislators and the affected communities should be met. Again, I do not believe a two-week time frame does that.

That said, I would like to request that the department postpone any decision making until you schedule a public hearing in Pittsburgh on the matter. If you are true to your word about making this as thorough and deliberative a decision as possible, I believe this is a fair and reasonable request. In the meantime, I also plan to ask for a Senate Democratic Policy Committee to convene a hearing and involve the department in those discussions as well.

Additionally, I am in the process of drafting legislation that would prohibit the Department of Corrections from closing a state correctional institution without conducting a public hearing within the municipality in which the facility is located. Under my legislation, the department would be required to provide at least 30 days’ notice of the public hearing. Once again, I truly believe this is a fair and rational expectation that if enacted, would better prepare all of us for situations like this in the future.

I realize difficult decisions lie ahead for all us as we approach consideration of a responsible fiscal plan for the Commonwealth and strongly urge you to consider the unique characteristics that SCI Pittsburgh provides within the state corrections system and the impact of which losing the facility would have not only in the Pittsburgh region, but the challenges it would present to other facilities throughout the Commonwealth that are not equipped or prepared to replace, particularly for oncology patients.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. I look forward to hearing from you.

Wayne D. Fontana
State Senator, 42nd Senatorial District

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