The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) announced Thursday that State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh will shut down by June 30, 2017.
As the state faces a $600 million budget gap this year alone, DOC said the most effective way to cut costs is to close prisons. Falling rates of crime, incarceration, and recidivism means inmate populations are down, and allows this reshuffling of inmates, said Corrections Secretary Wetzel.
Originally, the state anticipated closing two prisons. Five facilities were being considered: State Correctional Institutions Pittsburgh and Mercer in the western part of the state, and Waymart, Frackville, and Retreat in the east.
Two weeks ago, SCI Pittsburgh seemed the least likely prison to close: It offers specialized mental health services DOC concluded would be “difficult to relocate.” In the end, however, Wetzel said the decision to close the Pittsburgh facility came down to potential.
“It’s the only of the five that had property that had not just a chance to redevelop, but prime real estate.”
The prison sits on 24 acres along the Ohio River. Wetzel said in a joint hearing in the State Senate on Monday that prison facilities are typically hard to sell. But the Pittsburgh site is prime for reuse, said Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin in a release.
“The southwest region has realized a steady stream of business expansions in recent years, and with SCI Pittsburgh’s close proximity to both the river and the industrial corridor, the site is likely to be repurposed quickly.”
State Senators Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline) both said the decision has been made, and it’s time to move forward. “For me, it’s about helping the employees as much as I can, and helping the taxpayers here in Pittsburgh get something back on the tax rolls as quickly as possible.”
In a joint statement, Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald also said they anticipate the property providing valuable opportunities to the county and city.
Beyond its redevelopment potential, Wetzel said the state estimates that shutting just the one 135-year-old facility will save $80 million.
Closing a prison is not an easy decision, said Wetzel. He and his staff traveled to SCI Pittsburgh Thursday morning to deliver the message personally. He added the continuing decline in inmate population means the state will face more prison closures in the future.
“It’s fair to say that government is in a downsize mode. I think you’ve heard that signal from all four caucuses and you’ve heard it from the administration, government is in a downsize mode.”
As for the four other prisons being considered, Wetzel said this is a temporary reprieve.
“While I’m sure they’re breathing a sigh of relief, we gotta understand the times we’re in.”
Pittsburgh’s more than 1,900 inmates will be relocated. The prison’s more than 500 staff will be offered jobs throughout the system.
*UPDATED: Jan. 26, 5:25 p.m.