Employees, family members fight to keep prison from closing



GREENSBURG, Pa. - Sen. Kim Ward said the closing of the state prison in Greensburg was planned in secret long ago by the Corbett administration and deliberately kept from Westmoreland County lawmakers out of concern that they would thwart the plan.

Ward, a Hempfield Republican, and other legislators didn't learn until Tuesday, the day before the official announcement, that the medium-security prison would close by June 30, causing the loss of more than 400 jobs, as well as local tax revenue.

"I'm not stupid. This decision was not made overnight," Ward said Friday. "They kept it all behind closed doors. I believe they made their deal, whatever it is. That other prison has been completed and sitting up there for nearly a year. Wham! All of a sudden, they're closing (SCI Greensburg)."

SCI Cresson in Cambria County also will close as the state opens a $200 million facility in Benner Township, Centre County.

Ward's comments and the anger expressed by Republican state legislators this week indicate a serious rift between Gov. Tom Corbett and GOP leaders who helped Corbett carry Westmoreland County.

County lawmakers, including legislators and the commissioners, said this week that they were kept in the dark and then left to explain to the public why the prison was closing.

"This definitely strains the relationship," Ward said. "We don't represent the administration. We represent the people in our districts. If this means a family feud, so be it."

Ward was at the state Farm Show Tuesday morning when she received a call from Corbett's office that Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and Joe Murzyn, Corbett's deputy secretary for legislative affairs, wanted her to join them in a conference call at 2:45 p.m. Ward said she had heard rumors of a possible closing from prison employees and state Rep. Mike Reese of Mt. Pleasant Township, whose aunt works there.

"I said, 'No, how are they going to close the prison?' It's unbelievable. I get on the conference call and they say, 'We're calling to talk to you about SCI Greensburg. ... We're going to close the prison.' Just like that. Had absolutely no inkling," he said.

"OK," Ward replied.

"We're doing it," Murzyn said, according to Ward.

"Really? Just like that," Ward said.

Ward said the governor had called her the week before to discuss other issues, but did not mention the prison.

"We talk about transparency in government. This isn't it. If SCI Greensburg is one of the least-efficient prisons, why couldn't this be done through a public process? Why shouldn't we be part of the process?" she said.

Lt. Gov. James Cawley called Ward on Thursday to try and make amends, she said.

"I told him how I found out. He said, 'We can't do anything about that. ... Where do we go from here?'" she said. "Here's where we're going to go. We're going to fight the administration to get answers. We need to know that. We deserve to know that. The employees deserve to know that. Why did they do this?"

Ward asked Cawley to address rumors that Highmark or UPMC had expressed interest in buying the prison property, but Cawley dismissed them, she said.

Ward said she questioned Wetzel's explanation of cost savings.

"I don't know how they make a decision like that unilaterally without consulting us," she said, referring to other state lawmakers and county officials. "I'm not sure what they were thinking - or if they were thinking at all."

Ward said she and other Westmoreland County legislators are determined to find out the story behind the closing and whether there is a deal to sell the property.

"Did they expect we were all going to sit here on our hands?" she said.

Corrie Rigney, the wife of a prison employee of 19 years, told Channel 11’s Courtney Brennan that the closure will devastate families of the employees.

Brennan reported that prison employees were told Monday that they have one week to decide where they’d like to transfer.

“My husband called me on Monday and I thought he was teasing. He said, ‘I’m not teasing. Did you see the news?’” Rigney said. “He told me they were closing and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Some employees will transwer to other local prisons, but the rest will likely have to move to Centre County and find work at the new facility in Benner Township.

“It’s very scary,” Rigney said. “We have three children and my husband worries about how we’re going to pay the bills.”

Local lawmakers sent a letter to the state corrections office saying, “We request that you consider delaying your recently announced plan to close SCI Greensburg until Jan. 2014. During that time, it is our intent to hold public hearings on this matter."

Employees plan on meeting Tuesday morning to strategize ways to fight the closure ahead of Tuesday night’s union meeting.


Channel 11’s news exchange partners at TribLIVE contributed to this report.