Close or not to close regional prisons

(302) Sunday, January 22, 2017 – Mercer County economic development “experts” claim that if Gov. Tom Wolfe closes the State Correctional Institute (SCI) in a rural area, the loss of over 400 good-paying jobs will bump unemployment another full percent there.

Cutting costs from an already strained budget, Wolf says he must close two of the state’s five SCI.  There has been some fall off in crime and incarceration as a remedy.  Wolf’s Department of Corrections believes the closings will not create overcrowding.

A public hearing on the closings is set for tomorrow (Monday) morning in Harrisburg.  At that time the state will present a short rationale for why the closures are needed.  Following that, leaders from each of the five regions that could be affected will present reasons why their location should not be closed.

Leaders of each of the five regions will be allowed 15 minutes to present their case.

The decision will be “political” and most of the input at the hearing will be “political” because the process does not allow for anything less.  The right questions will neither be asked nor answered.

Wolf’s administration is Democrat.  Opposition to closing Mercer is being led by State Sen. Michele Brooks, state representatives Tedd Nesbit and Parke Wentling and Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell.

All Republicans, Brooks, Nesbit and Wentling have steadfastly refused to supply votes to fund a Wolf budget.  Republican McConnell knows more cutbacks in state funding will negatively impact county government.  To determine if this gives McConnell any options would require him to think ahead.

This event is about getting re-elected.  Everyone will tout his/her opposition to the prison closing on their re-election materials.

Wolf creates his own problems, continuing to raise doubt he should be re-elected in 2018.  On the prison closing, his administration did not give notice to those who have supported his proposed tax increases.

Shenango Valley State Rep. Mark Longietti, a Democrat with increasing seniority and influence in the House of Representatives, reportedly learned about the potential closing when everyone else was notified.

Longietti has experience in being hung out to dry by pols above his pay grade.  Former Gov. Ed Rendell – more than once – ignored Longietti’s concerns for up-state citizens, one occasion culminating in a shouting match between the two.

This writer became chair of the Mercer County Democratic Committee in June, 1970.  Milt Shapp, a Democrat, succeeded Republican Ray Shafer as governor in January, 1971.

Sometime that fall, Mercer County’s two Common Pleas Judges, John Stranahan and Albert Acker, took me to the first of several lunches during our mutual reigns.

They asked me to lobby for the Mercer County location for this SCI.  Gov. Shafer had been a state senator in Crawford County and the grapevine said the new prison was going near his home.

The location was important, not only for economic reasons.  A shorter distance to transport prisoners from Mercer court and county jail to the state pen would keep local government costs low.

Our only Democrat lawmaker during that period was Reid Bennett, elected in 1964 and beginning to amass seniority and power.  My role was to keep the proposed new SCI in his sightline.

In 1978 the new state prison opened at its present location.  Who knows if our efforts helped.

The location did prove to be very positive to Mercer County.  Later, the county government built its new jail in the same neighborhood and the two prisons shared some services.

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly also sent a letter to Gov. Wolf requesting the administration take more time to arrive at the best decision.  Scott Boyd, the other GOP county commissioner, also wrote a newspaper article admonishing the Democrat administration, but also offering no suggestion as to how the county government could assist.

Like the other Republicans, Kelly’s postage stamp got him “positive” ink and sound bites in local media.  Like his GOP brethren, he offered no solution or genuine assistance in resolving the issue.

Bottom Line:  The Wolf administration has announced that the locations of SCIs to be closed will be made known at the end of this week.

Public hearings have become publicity stunts, providing no weight to the decision-making process.  Their sole purpose is to make voters believe their opinions count.

Leaders of each of the five communities are being given 15 minutes to make their case.

Mercer’s presentation will be made by Commissioner McConnell and Randy Seitz, CEO of Penn-Northwest Development Corporation.  Live performances by any of the region’s elected lawmakers would have been tough to stay on script and endanger their chances for re-election.

This crisis does not provide any opportunity for the three Democrat leaders to score points for re-election.

Gov. Wolf re-election effort will not be improved by his handling of prison closings.  More likely, unions with correction officer members will endorse his opponent.

Rep. Longietti has grey hairs from dealing with governors who showed little concern for his constituents.  He can be expected to “slog” his way through a tough situation, conducting himself responsibly at all times.

Tim McGonigle, minority county commissioner, has yet to be heard.  Admittedly, when he ran for the $60,000 job he promised not to serve full-time.  The prison-closing crisis probably surfaced during his time off.

These decisions are political.  Missing are the negotiations that are more likely to evolve in a conclusion satisfactory to the most people.  Government will be gridlocked like this for as long as some lawmakers (mostly Republicans) refuse to compromise.

If nothing else, history and longevity puts this writer at the beginning when the prison was conceived and built and still around for its likely demise.

  • By Ken Ammann, January 24, 2017 @ 11:04 AM

    Very insightful.

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