Leaders say closing of Mercer County prison would be devastating

MERCER COUNTY, Pa. (WYTV) – For the last couple years, Jim and Gina Hicks have operated their tavern in Mercer. They said the possible closing of the state prison just outside of town would have a devastating effect on business.

“We definitely rely on that business for those, those workers out there. That’s people from all over, you know, this part of Pennsylvania,” said Jim Hicks.

It was why a handful of local leaders made the five-hour trip to Harrisburg Monday morning to testify against the closure of State Correctional Institution – Mercer

Governor Tom Wolf wants to close two of the commonwealth’s 26 prisons to save about $160 million, putting Mercer County’s prison on a list with four others to be studied. Along with Mercer, the prisons up for closure include Frackville, Pittsburgh, Retreat and Waymart.

Randy Seitz, CEO of Penn Northwest Development, said the closing of SCI Mercer would contribute to driving up the unemployment rate above 7 percent.

The local facility has 1,400 inmates with around 400 employees. Only 50 of the employees are of retirement age, according to testimony at the hearing. The facility is the second-youngest in the state system.

Although directors claim workers would all be offered jobs at other prisons, local officials argue that the news comes at a time when the economy is already reeling.

Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell cited the closings of Macy’s, Sears and layoffs at GE in Grove City. Commissioners also added that the recent loss of the third shift for General Motors in Lordstown affects their county.

“The closure of SCI Mercer would have a $93.8 million negative impact, and it would impact a million dollars of tax revenue, which is now at risk,” said McConnell.

Those testifying on Monday also addressed $20 million in upgrades at SCI Mercer, saying the prison is self-sufficient in heating itself. Inmates also contribute to area food banks with a corn initiative and give back to the community with highway clean-up and other community-service efforts.

Presented at the hearing were letters of support for the prison from local businesses and the Chamber of Commerce.

Although the state’s prison population had grown over the last 20 years, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections said those numbers are now falling, even though the system is still over capacity.

A decision is expected to be announced later this week. The closings would take effect at the end of June.