PA Moves To Close Another Prison As Incarceration Rates Drop

Jan 16, 2020

After a hot mic incident, two heated community meetings, and months of debate, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections moved Wednesday to close State Correctional Institute Retreat, a 1,200 bed facility in Luzerne County.

The DOC plans to shutter Retreat in light of the state’s rapidly declining inmate population — due to falling crime rates and criminal justice reforms — and a $140 million hole in the agency’s budget. It would be the second state prison closure in three years, the fifth in a decade.

“Any closure will have an impact to the community in which it operates. State correctional institutions are expensive to operate and inevitably develop structural issues. However, from an operational, fiscal, public safety, and economic standpoint, SCI Retreat is the best option for closure,” wrote DOC staff in their recommendation, released Wednesday.

The facility, a former mental hospital and almshouse, needs serious repairs such as a new bridge, which would run between $15 and $20 million. The cost of mothballing the facility is $1.2 million a year, according to the report.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokesperson said he will make a final decision in the near future on whether to accept the DOC’s recommendation.

The pending closure highlights the ideological shift in thinking that’s occurred about the criminal justice system in recent years, which has focused on reforms that aim to address racial disparities in sentencing.

According to the DOC, crime in Pennsylvania has decreased by 45% in the past two decades. Changing attitudes towards incarceration have also lowered the number of people in the state’s correctional system.

In 2019, the state’s prison system saw the single biggest drop in its inmate population ever — a decrease of nearly 1,900 people, according to the DOC.

Around a third of SCI Retreat’s 1,052 residents were sentenced in Philadelphia, and nearly half came from the city and the surrounding suburban counties, according to most recent data.

“The prison population is declining and that is a good thing, because it means criminal justice reforms are working,” said Governor Tom Wolf about the closure of SCI Pittsburgh in 2017.

Losing the facility, and the $60 million operating budget it pumps through the local economy, is a serious blow said State Sen. John Yudichak, an independent with offices in nearby Nanticoke.

“The closure of SCI Retreat is not driven by budget numbers, it’s being driven by a political agenda, by special interest groups that want to shut down the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania,” said Yudichak, who defected from the Democratic Party in November, choosing to caucus with Republicans.

Hot mic

At a mandated public hearing in October to bring the proposed closure to the community, DOC Secretary John Wetzel was heard bemoaning the closure of SCI Retreat.

”This does suck. I wish I didn’t have to close this [expletive]. It is what it is,” he told Regional Deputy Secretary Tabb Bickell during a break. Wetzel later apologized for his remarks and was taken off of the team deciding Retreat’s fate.

Yudichak, along with fellow State Senators Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) and John Gordner (R-Columbia) said the hearing was a mere formality, and the DOC failed to make a “good faith effort” to take into consideration the community’s wishes. They have called on Gov. Wolf to keep the prison open.

Under the closure plan, the DOC has promised to provide jobs to guards currently employed at SCI Retreat at other prisons within a 65-mile radius. The facility employs 409 people.

“They’re going to have to decide what they’re going to do: Are they going to relocate or are they going to make the commute?” said Larry Blackwell, president of the PA State Corrections Officers Association.

It is not clear yet where the inmates would be transferred.

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY.