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PA Senators Question Fast Track Plan To Close SCI Pittsburgh

HARRISBURG (News Radio 1020 KDKA/AP) - To save money in another difficult budget year, the Wolf administration, bolstered by a declining prison population, has announced plans to close two of five state prisons located in Allegheny, Luzerne, Mercer, Schuylkill and Wayne Counties.

Corrections officials say they're trying to save money and that they expect the inmate population to continue dropping.

During a hearing Monday, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel defended the move.

"Absolutely not a political decision, absolutely. No one is forcing – this not a political decision," said Wetzel

But some senators, including Republican Lisa Baker, are not convinced.

"I do have to say there are many people who believe that this is a leverage to get a personal income tax increase, or some type of tax increase," said Baker.

Other senators questioned the speed of the decision on the prisons to close - a decision to be announced on Thursday.

SCI Pittsburgh is on the list because it's old and costly to run, according to the governor. But this morning, he hinted on the "KDKA Morning News" the site might be attractive to developers.

"It is prime real estate, in Pittsburgh, which is a city now which is growing economically now and has some options," said Gov. Wolf.

There's no word on whether any developers are interested in the site.  The prison sits on the banks of the Ohio river in Woods run.

Wolf said he is working to reduce the number of incarcerated people in Pennsylvania and that over time, a lower rate of those locked up will lead to fewer prisons.

He adds the money saved should be invested in education to keep people out of prison in the first place.

But a closure will mean the 550 people employed here will need to go to a new correctional facility, find other jobs or retire.

Wolf says whatever prisons are closed, "There will be no losses of jobs, whichever prison or prisons we close we'll be offering those folks [job] opportunities."

The state will also have to relocate specialty services SCI Pittsburgh provides to inmates.

About 600 of the inmates have been diagnosed with serious mental illness and are sent to SCI Pittsburgh from throughout the state system to get specialized therapy.

Pittsburgh also provides specialty drug and alcohol treatment programs and medical care in its infirmary -- where inmates with cancer receive chemotherapy as well as a battery of other treatments.

"We treat these inmates just like they would be treated in a hospital," superintendent Mark Capozza said.

If the state decides the close this prison, it will bring to a close 134 years of incarceration on the North Side. Unpleasant memories for some, but gainful employment for generations of Pittsburghers.

Listen to the "KDKA Morning News" with Larry Richert and John Shumway weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on NewsRadio 1020 KDKA.

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(TM and © Copyright 2017 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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