The union representing Pennsylvania’s correctional officers criticized both Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and the process for closing a prison after Wetzel was caught making comments on a live microphone during a recent public hearing regarding the planned closure of the Retreat facility.
In a video of the hearing, which took place last week, Wetzel is seen leaning toward Tabb Bickell, the department’s executive deputy secretary, after he gives directions on how those in attendance can give comments roughly 85 minutes into the proceedings.
“You know what? This does suck,” Wetzel told Bickell. “I wish I didn’t have to close this [expletive].”
Then, after Bickell responded to that comment, Wetzel added, “It is what it is.”
Nearly two months ago, Wetzel announced a proposal to close the Retreat prison, which is about 15 miles west of Wilkes-Barre, and a prison in Mercer County in order to deal with a $140 million budget deficit.
The closures would not affect employee levels, as the 400 Retreat workers would be offered jobs at other department facilities. However, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) criticized the move, saying Wetzel told lawmakers earlier in the year that the department needed stability and not closures.
In a statement Thursday, PSCOA President Larry Blackwell said the union has always believed Retreat’s fate was sealed, even before the hearing. That would be in violation of state law.
“The DOC’s subsequent actions have only supported this belief,” Blackwell added. “The DOC quietly announced the date for the hearing in a legal advertisement to suppress turnout. Then, weeks passed before any further guidance from the DOC was provided to the public. An agenda was not released until a day before the public hearing.”
Blackwell also called Wetzel’s comments “shameful and embarrassing,” and said they revealed a corrupt decision-making process that threatens the public’s safety.
“That should anger legislators who passed legislation to stop something just like this from happening,” Blackwell said. “Communities were supposed to be provided legitimate opportunities to keep prisons open. These are not laughing matters when the futures of these communities are at stake. The Retreat community, state legislators and PSCOA members showed up in force to make their case against closure. We now know it was all a show.”
Two state senators representing Luzerne County, where the Retreat prison is located, said in statements they were disheartened by Wetzel’s remarks.
“I hope the (Wolf) Administration and the Department of Corrections are taking the requirements of Act 133 very seriously and that we see an extensive authentic written report on how the closing of SCI Retreat will impact public safety, the local economy, the loss of local tax revenue and the feasibility of repurposing the facility,” said state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township. “Until the Department of Corrections can justify the closure based against the cost analysis requirements of Act 133, SCI Retreat should not be closed.”
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, said the hearings are supposed to ensure the communities affected have the chance to demonstrate why proposed closures would be detrimental.
“By listening to those impacted, decision makers are forced to see some of the inconvenient facts involved,” she said. “Just this week the secretary acknowledged that prior to the hearing he was not aware of the effect a closure could have on the sewer authority, and that he understood the obligation involved, so hearing these comments is certainly disappointing.”
Both Baker and Yudichak attended the hearing.
A call to the department seeking comment was not returned. However, in an interview with PennLive.com, Wetzel dismissed claims that the hearing was just for show and said he understood the community’s concerns.
“So if their premise is that a bureaucrat or a decision maker or a public employee has no empathy for the impact of a decision that he’s going to make – I didn’t use the most eloquent language and I’ll acknowledge that – I wouldn’t have personally been there or had all my leadership team there to hear first-hand from the people that are impacted about what the impact of the decision is,” he said.