Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday announced that he agrees with a recommendation calling for closure of the State Correctional Institution at Retreat due to budgetary constraints and a declining prison population.
With Wolf’s announcement, plans to shutter the Newport Township prison will get underway, a process that will take at least four months, as required under state law. His decision follows Wednesday’s release of a report by the Department of Corrections recommending closure.
The governor’s decree left lawmakers and others who opposed the closure deeply upset — if not surprised — but also focused on what steps must be taken to assist the facility’s employees.
In his statement, Wolf indirectly addressed those who have been critical of not just of closure plans but of the entire process, from research to how public feedback has been handled.
“The SCI Retreat closure report was developed through a transparent, inclusive process and provides a thorough, straightforward, facts-based review of the realities surrounding the facility’s financial needs and the effects a closure could have on the staff, inmates, and the community in regard to public safety. These factors indicate to me that closure is the right decision,” Wolf said.
“I understand that a closure is tough on the employees, the community and the inmates and their families,” he added. “The DOC staff will work to ensure a smooth transition for all involved and I will be in touch with DOC executive staff throughout the closure process.”
According to the most recent state statistics, Retreat employs 384 people and had a prison population of 942 as of Dec. 31, putting it at 86.8% of capacity.
DOC staff will be on site to help employees with relocation to a DOC facility within a 65-mile radius of SCI Retreat, which is in Newport Township, Luzerne County. There are six DOC facilities within the 65-mile radius.
Wolf defends decision
Wolf cited the following factors in his decision to order the closure:
• The DOC continues to experience a significant decrease in the inmate population. In fact, a reduction of 1,900 inmates in fiscal year 2018-19 was the largest one-year decrease in the department’s history — all at a time when crime rates continue to fall.
• Current projections anticipate a continued decline in the prison population over the next five years while DOC is also faced with the challenge of a projected budget deficit of approximately $140 million for fiscal year 2019-20.
• All employees will be offered continued employment at another SCI within 65 miles of SCI Retreat.
• All employees are provided support through the utilization of SEAP, COVER, and POWER.
• The closure will not affect the safety or security of the staff, inmates, and public.
• The DOC can continue to prioritize the safety of staff, inmates and the community in addition to remaining a good steward of taxpayer money.
“As a result of the significant budget deficit and continued decrease in the inmate population, among other factors, it would be fiscally irresponsible to not close the prison,” Wolf said.
Under Act 133 there is a minimum four-month closure process so SCI Retreat will close no earlier than May 17. After the facility closes, it is expected that the DOC will save approximately $40 million annually.
Full annual net savings will not be realized until after a full year of closure, however.
The DOC report was compiled after two public hearings were held to discuss the impact closing the facility would have on the host municipality and the region. The hearings were held as a requirement of Act 133.
The DOC report details why the department decided to recommend closing the prison that houses more than 1,000 inmates and has 384 full-time employees.
In the executive summary of the report, it is stated that the DOC continues to experience a significant decrease in the inmate population.
“In fact, a reduction of 1,900 inmates in fiscal year 2018/2019 was the largest one-year decrease in the Department’s history — all at a time when crime rates continue to fall,” the report states. “Furthermore, current population projections anticipate a continued decline in the prison population over the next five years.”
At the same time, the DOC says it is also faced with the challenge of a projected budget deficit of approximately $140 million for fiscal year 2019/2020. As a result of that significant budget deficit and continued decrease in the inmate population, the DOC said it would be fiscally irresponsible not to consider a facility closure.
The report further states that SCI Retreat has significant physical plant and infrastructure concerns where renovation and upgrades are needed to preserve the operations of the facility.
Specifically, a structural inspection of the access bridge over the Susquehanna River has recently identified structural deficiencies that are in need of immediate repair, the report states.
An expenditure of $15-$20 million for a full replacement of the bridge in the next 10-15 years is recommended by PennDOT.
As far as the loss of revenue to the Shickshinny Municipal Authority, the report calls for a $32,000/quarter usage fee. The DOC is committed to paying a quarterly usage fee for a period of five years from the closure date.
The report estimates that annual mothballing costs for the facility will total $1.2 million, including minimal utility services to maintain the facility as well as contracted operations for the boiler plant and security to oversee the closed facility.
In August, Wolf’s administration and the Department of Corrections announced their current proposal to close SCI-Retreat.
DOC Executive Deputy Secretary for Institutional Operations Tabb Bickell was placed in charge of the process amid ongoing outrage over profane remarks made by DOC Secretary John Wetzel during a public hearing on plans to close the state prison, located in Newport Township.
Bickell, who oversaw the implementation of the closure review process outlined in Act 133, noted that the next step in the process involves negotiations with labor unions.
When those are completed, SCI Retreat employees will be given a survey to indicate their first and second relocation choices. Employees will have 60 days to return the survey to department officials. After completed surveys are received, employee relocation will begin and is likely to continue up to the final closure date.
Prior to employee relocation, the prison’s inmate population will be gradually relocated to other DOC facilities. Inmate relocation decisions will be based on each inmate’s custody level and treatment and medical needs.
State Sens. John Yudichak, I-Swoyersville, Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, and John Gordner, R-Berwick, released a joint statement regarding the governor’s decision to accept the recommendation made by the Department of Corrections to close SCI Retreat.
“We are extremely disappointed that Governor Wolf has chosen to close SCI Retreat, and accept the critically flawed recommendations made by the Department of Corrections that ignored the voices of the people, the communities, and the business owners of Luzerne County. The decision is devastating news to Newport Township and neighboring communities in Luzerne County, and foreshadows troubling trends ahead for the Department of Corrections related to overcrowding and disciplinary problems we are already experiencing at SCI Dallas that make our prison system less safe and less stable.
“Our thoughts remain with these men and women who go to work every day to keep the public safe, and who made SCI Retreat one of the best run facilities in Pennsylvania. The lives of these brave workers and the communities they call home will be dramatically impacted by the decision to close SCI Retreat. We will continue to support the SCI Retreat family, and we will continue the fight to ensure the families of SCI Retreat can continue to call Luzerne County home.
“We will never stop working to keep our residents safe, create jobs, and bolster our region’s economy. We are determined to explore every possible avenue for mitigating the economic losses imposed by the regrettable closure of SCI Retreat. We call upon Governor Wolf to work with the legislature to develop a recovery and reinvestment strategy for communities and workers adversely impacted by the closure of a state facility.
“While today is a difficult day, we know that the people of Luzerne County are resilient. In that spirit, we are confident that even as the doors to SCI Retreat close, other doors will open and bring new opportunities for the residents and communities of Luzerne County.”