NANTICOKE — Gathering in the auditorium of the Greater Nanticoke Area High School, state officials, employees of the State Correctional Institute — Retreat and others came out in an attempt to convince the state Department of Corrections to keep the state prison open.
But as corrections officials tried to assurance the hundreds in attendance Thursday evening about the possible prison closure, one state senator likened it giving Luzerne County the “death penalty.”
Thursday’s hearing was necessitated by Act 133 of 2018 — passed in part due to a previous attempt to close the prison in 2017 — which requires closures of public institutions like correctional facilities to come after a period of public comment and investigation into the economic impact of the closure. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and the corrections department announced their plans to close the Newport Township-based prison in August.
Overseen by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, the hearing began with assurances form the department that, despite the difficulty of the potential closure, the state would be taking all necessary precautions to ensure the local economy and prison employees would be impacted in the least negative way possible.
Paul Macnowsky, regional director of the Department of Community and Economic Development, said that the economic effects of a closure could be tough, but added that he believed the troubles could be surmounted with the right kind of help from the state.
Macnowsky specifically highlighted a potential loss of $1,300 in taxes each year from any employees of the prison who move out of the county for work, should they be placed at a prison outside the county.
He also said it was estimated that slightly more than 50% of the employees would be relocated to correctional facilities that would, on average, decrease the length of their commute, as the state has guaranteed all employees would be placed at a prison within 65 miles of SCI-Retreat.
A hiring freeze has been placed at the six correctional institutions within that radius in order to make room for the 409 employees who would be affected by the closure, said another official.
It was repeatedly said throughout the night by state officials that the decision to close the prison does not come lightly, with a statement from Wolf being read saying the governor wants to provide a system that is more “fair,” but also fiscally responsible.
However, during the period of public comment, criticism of the plans was sharp, drawing the ire prison employees and elected officials, including state Sens. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, and John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township.
Yudichak’s comments were particularly impassioned, saying the closure of the prison, when coupled with the White Haven State Center, would be disastrous to the local community, saying the two closures would result in a loss of 800 total jobs locally.
In a fiery speech, Yudichak spoke about how proud he was of the Luzerne County community for rising “from the ashes of anthracite.”
“So after decades of digging out of that mine hole, why at this time, why at this time would the Wolf administration and the Department of Corrections kick Luzerne County back down the mine shaft?” Yudichak asked. “It’s more than cruel and unusual punishment; it is the possible death penalty of Luzerne County shaking its status of having the highest unemployment rate in the state.”
Before thunderous applause from the nearly 300 people gathered in support of the prison, Yudichak asked the department to actually take the public comments into consideration.
“Live up to the spirit of Act 133 and keep SCI-Retreat open,” he said.
Leo Kaskel, an employee at the prison, also spoke heatedly, saying that the prison is needed to not only keep the community safe, but to help rehabilitate prisoners.
“(Closing the prison) inherently increases the possibility that, when reentrants come home, they’ll remember that the Department of Corrections treated them as a number,” he said, saying shipping inmates to other prisons would only increase overcrowding. “These people will become our neighbors again.”
Kaskel said he’s not worried about the employees — he said they’re tough; he know’s they’ll survive.
“I’m worried about what we are saying as a commonwealth when we are taking away another property, another asset from our citizens for budgetary reasons,” he said, with emotion in his voice. “We can do better than this. This is not an opportunity to reduce our footprint, but to improve our footing.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Corrections said the state’s decision about the prison could come in 60 to 90 days.
State Sens. Lisa Baker, right, and John Yudichak wait their turn to speak at a public hearing on the possible closure of SCI-Retreat at Greater Nanticoke Area High School on Thursday night.
State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, addresses state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, center, and executive deputies Tabb Bickell, left, and George Little during a public hearing on SCI-Retreat at Greater Nanticoke Area High School on Thursday night. Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader
SCI-Retreat corrections counselor Leo Kaskel makes an impassioned plea to members of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections during a public hearing at Greater Nanticoke Area High School on Thursday night.
SCI-Retreat public hearing attendees show their support for the prison at Greater Nanticoke Area High School on Thursday night.
SCI-Retreat public hearing attendees show their support for the prison at Greater Nanticoke Area High School on Thursday night. Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader
Twenty-month-old Evan Nichol, of Forty Fort, stands with a sign supporting his grandmother Sharon Nichol, who is a nurse at SCI-Retreat before a public hearing at Greater Nanticoke Area High School on Thursday night.