After Hot Mic Comment, Tensions Between PA Prisons Chief And Prison Staff Flare

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HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — Longstanding tensions between Pennsylvania’s Correction Secretary and the union that represents prison staff appear to have worsened this week, after a public hearing over the Corrections Department’s plan to close a prison.A quiet comment the Secretary John Wetzel made in front of a live microphone led union leaders to believe the prison closure was a done deal, despite the DOC’s assurances to the contrary.

Wetzel made the comment to a deputy as he spoke to community members concerned about a proposal to close the State Correctional Institution at Retreat, in Luzerne County.

“You know what,” he said, “this does suck, I wish I didn’t have to close this [expletive].”

Larry Blackwell, who heads the State Correction Officers’ Union, said he took that to mean Wetzel has already decided Retreat is closing. State law dictates that before shutting down a prison, the DOC hold hearings so the affected community can explain the impact it’ll have.

“I don’t know that there ever really was a great relationship with the DOC anyway, but this surely doesn’t help it,” Blackwell said.

He added, he also thinks the DOC is moving too many people out of prisons and on to parole, when they’re not ready.

“We don’t want prisoners to be in jail any longer than they should be either, because it makes our jobs harder,” he said. “But whenever there’s rules to be followed and they can’t follow them, they need to be in prison.”

In a statement, Wetzel’s staff said despite Blackwell’s theory the Retreat closure isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Governor Tom Wolf “and Secretary Wetzel take the proposed prison closure process seriously and respect that process and the input from SCI Retreat staff, legislators and community members regarding the department’s recommendation to close the facility,” a spokesperson said. “We will continue to engage with those affected by the potential closure, and we will consider all input before a final decision is made in early December.”

The DOC has touted falling prison numbers as a good thing, related to a gradual phase-out of overly punitive punishments.

Last fiscal year, the system reported its biggest ever one-year population decrease.