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Human Rights Groups Take Note As PA Announces Prison Closures

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

In a surprise announcement last week, the state said it would close two of its prisons.

And while lawmakers and local leaders have begun discussing how the closures could affect their economies, civil rights groups have turned their attention to the conditions inside the prisons.

The state still hasn’t decided which two prisons will close, but the changes will push several thousand inmates into other facilities across the state.

Andy Hoover, with the American Civil Liberties Union, said it’s hard to know exactly how to interpret this.

On one hand, he said closing prisons can be a great thing if it means the arrest rate is going down and recidivism is decreasing.

However, he added, “if it’s happening to cut costs and you’re doing it to jam people into prisons that are already at capacity, then that could be problematic.”

Hoover noted that overcrowding has been known to lead to inhumane conditions in Pennsylvania in the past.

“We had a case back in 2009 back when the population was at its peak, where inmates were being kept in a dayroom,” he said. “At night they didn’t have access to the restroom because they were locked I the dayroom. That’s the kind of thing you want to make sure does not happen.”

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel acknowledged that after the prisons close, it’ll be a tight fit.

The system is measuring space based on “emergency capacity”—how many beds can physically fit into the building. The consolidation would push the system to about 92 percent capacity.   

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf is billing the move as a positive one, saying he “chose to invest in schools, not prisons.”