Pennsylvania to close two prisons as budget shortfall looms

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[January 07, 2017]  By David DeKok

HARRISBURG (Reuters) - Pennsylvania will close two state prisons by June 30 to help offset a projected $600 million revenue shortfall in this year's budget, state officials said on Friday.

Pennsylvania is also facing a $1.7 billion structural deficit next fiscal year. Governor Tom Wolf, whose efforts to raise taxes have failed since he took office in January 2015, has vowed to close the deficit through cuts and savings.

"We must make government more efficient to avoid broad cuts to education, job creation programs and social services for the most vulnerable," Wolf said in a statement on Friday, explaining why he "chose to invest in schools - not prisons."

Corrections officials said the affected employees, who will number between 800 and 1,100 depending on which prisons are picked, will be offered jobs at one of the 24 remaining prisons in the system.

The department will also cut in half the capacity of its halfway houses.

Despite cutting costs over the past several years, "We are again in the position where the Department of Corrections must make significant reductions because of the dire budget forecast," Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a statement.

He said the candidates for potential closure had been narrowed to five correctional institutions: SCI Frackville, SCI Mercer, SCI Retreat, SCI Allegheny and SCI Waymart. The two selections will be announced on Jan. 26.

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Closing the two most expensive prisons, SCI Allegheny in Pittsburgh and SCI Waymart in the northeastern corner of the state, would save a total $162 million per year, according to a Corrections Department analysis document. Closing one of the other three would save $44 million to $46 million per year.

Waymart treats inmates with serious mental health problems, and Allegheny provides specialty medical care, including an oncology unit. Wetzel said closing them would present unique problems.

Pennsylvania's prisons are mainly located in rural areas and provide good-paying jobs.

Senator John Blake, a Democrat whose district includes Waymart, vowed to fight any potential closure of the facility there because of concerns over public safety and the potential loss of 700 jobs.

(Reporting by David DeKok in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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