Home    Contact Us Newport Township Office Hours: Monday-Friday 8:30 AM to 3:00 PM
Newport Township News - 2020

 

1/18/2020
Wolf follows through, announces SCI-Retreat's closure
jhalpin@citizensvoice.com

Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday announced the state will close State Correctional Institution at Retreat, resulting in the displacement of more than 400 jobs in Luzerne County.
Citing a Department of Corrections deficit of $140 million for fiscal year 2019-20 and the prospect of saving an estimated $40 million annually by closing the prison, Wolf said he decided to close the prison so the department could remain a “good steward of taxpayer money.”
“As a result of the significant budget deficit and continued decrease in the inmate population, among other factors, it would be fiscally irresponsible to not close the prison,” Wolf said in the statement.
The decision, which was expected, drew swift criticism from the vocal opponents of the closure.
“To save money, Pennsylvania is closing prisons at a time when 60% of inmates return to prison within three years,” the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association said in a statement. “Pennsylvania’s system is bursting at the seams. State lawmakers must hold the Department of Corrections accountable for putting money over public safety, or prisons in their legislative districts will be next.”
Area lawmakers were also quick to criticize the move.
“It is very difficult to express my frustration with Gov. Wolf’s ideology and ultimate decision to displace hundreds of hard-working and dedicated employees,” said state Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-119, Newport Twp. “We have fought hard from day one to prevent the closure of SCI-Retreat and remain committed to the employees who work tirelessly to keep our community safe. ... I am sorry to learn our words fell on deaf ears. The impact of this closure will be felt well beyond the prison walls.”
In a joint statement, state Sens. John Yudichak, I-14, Plymouth Twp.; Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp.; and John Gordner, R-27, Berwick, blasted Wolf’s decision.
“We are extremely disappointed that Gov. Wolf has chosen to close SCI-Retreat, and accept the critically flawed recommendations made by the Department of Corrections that ignored the voices of the people, the communities, and the business owners of Luzerne County,” the senators wrote. “The decision is devastating news to Newport Twp. and neighboring communities in Luzerne County, and foreshadows troubling trends ahead for the Department of Corrections related to overcrowding and disciplinary problems we are already experiencing at SCI-Dallas that make our prison system less safe and less stable.”
The prison, which sits between the Susquehanna River and a mountainside, was targeted for closure in part because it is only accessible by an old bridge that leads to U.S. Route 11 in Hunlock Creek. During bad floods, like in 2011, the prison is left in “complete isolation” because flooding shuts down Route 11 in both directions, according to the department.
According to Wolf’s announcement, state law mandates a four-month closure process, meaning the prison will not be shuttered at least until May 17.
In the meantime, the medium-security prison’s 955 inmates will be relocated to other prisons based on their individual security and medical needs, according to the announcement.
The more than 400 correctional officers and other Department of Corrections employees at the prison will be given the option to relocate to the six other DOC facilities that are within a 65-mile radius, the governor said.
“I understand that a closure is tough on the employees, the community and the inmates and their families,” Wolf said. “The DOC staff will work to ensure a smooth transition for all involved and I will be in touch with DOC executive staff throughout the closure process.”

1/16/2020
DOC recommendation to close SCI-Retreat draws criticism from local lawmakers
bkalinowski@citizensvoice.com

State taxpayers are projected to spend at least $1.2 million per year to mothball and maintain a shuttered State Correctional Institution at Retreat, but closing the prison is in the state’s overall best financial interest to achieve a savings of nearly $60 million per year, according to a report released Wednesday.
In the report, the leaders of the state Department of Corrections recommended closing the facility to plug a projected $140 million budget deficit and respond to a dwindling inmate population, a decision that would eliminate 400 jobs from Newport Twp.
The report concedes the closure will indirectly affect 890 total jobs in the area, which local legislators say could be a loss of tens of millions of dollars to the local economy. In addition, the loss to local vendors that do business with SCI-Retreat will be around $13.5 million, the report said.
The DOC report is just a recommendation, though local legislators say it seems the decision is final and will be rubber-stamped by Gov. Tom Wolf, as early as today.
Wolf has said all SCI-Retreat workers would be offered jobs at one of the six state prisons within 65 miles of SCI-Retreat, which are SCIs Coal Twp., Dallas, Frackville, Mahanoy, Muncy and Waymart.
Despite the promise, the report notes a hiring freeze at those facilities implemented in August has led to only 78 correctional officer vacancies. SCI-Retreat has 270 correctional officials. There are 128 non-correctional officer jobs available at those prisons, the report said.
In a joint statement, state Sens. John Yudichak, I-14, Plymouth Twp., Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp. and John Gordner, R-27, of Berwick, criticized the recommendation and said the entire closure process violated Public Safety Facilities Act 133, which required a public hearing before state facilities could be closed and a 90-day notice. The law was passed after Wolf tried to close SCI-Retreat in 2017.
“We stand with the brave men and women who have given their heart and soul working at SCI-Retreat and the communities of Luzerne County. We vehemently disagree with the findings made in the report by the Department of Corrections to recommend the closure of SCI-Retreat,” they said. “As we have done in the past, we stand in a bipartisan manner to call upon Gov. Wolf to reject the findings made in this report and keep SCI Retreat open.”
The DOC defended the closing in its report.
“The selection of SCI-Retreat is the least impactful selection of the DOC facilities because it is one of the oldest facilities and presents significant physical plant challenges,” the report said. “Although the Department acknowledges concerns over the impact of the closure of SCI-Retreat, the Department is in a position to ensure the retention of jobs, the safety of the public and the security of the inmates.”
Process was
a ‘charade’
State Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-119, of Newport Twp., said the closure process was nothing more than “a charade.”
“I’ve met privately with Gov. Wolf and discussed the impact of this proposed closure, but it appears he will move forward with his recommendation. I expect an announcement by weeks end,” Mullery said. “Now we must focus on the displaced employees and ensure their transition to new facilities is expeditious and safe. For those who cannot undertake a transition, we need to offer assistance in the form of education and/or career training.”
A review by the state Department of Labor and Industry determined the job prospects of those who don’t want to transition to a new prison. The department determined 108 employees had “good” prospects at finding a different job, while 285 had “fair to difficult” chances and 26 would have a “difficult” time.
Once the prison closes, SCI-Retreat’s 955 inmates will be moved to other prisons in the state.
Following a hearing on Oct. 17 at Greater Nanticoke Area High School, controversy erupted after a hot-mic video surfaced online in which DOC Secretary John Wetzel joked with fellow administrators that he was only pretending to pay attention and seemed to indicate SCI-Retreat’s fate was already made regardless of what happened.
Wetzel was then removed from the decision-making and another hearing was held at the Nanticoke Municipal Building.
“Secretary Wetzel’s comments caught on a microphone at the first SCI-Retreat hearing told us all we needed to know. This process has been a sham from the beginning — and it’s a dangerous one because it puts money over public safety,” said Larry Blackwell, president of Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association. “Our prisons are bursting at the seams and are more violent than ever — no matter how often the Department of Corrections manipulates its statistics on violence and inmate population. It’s time for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to hold this department accountable or more prisons are going to close in their districts.”
Yudichak said the closure of the prison would amount to the economic death penalty to Newport Twp. and Luzerne County.
County Manager David Pedri said he was disappointed.
“The Department of Corrections report is truly upsetting as it does not take into account the truly negative economic impact that this closure will have on Luzerne County and Newport Twp. After review, it seems that the Department made a decision first and then put together a report to back that decision,” Pedri said. “Our thoughts are with the many courageous employees who will now have to uproot their families and their way of life. I’m hopeful that Governor Wolf changes course and chooses to keep SCI Retreat open.”
SCI-Retreat history
SCI-Retreat, which sits between the Susquehanna River and a mountainside, first opened as a county-owned home for the poor. It later became a state-run mental health hospital until 1981, when it closed. The facility reopened as a state prison in January 1988.
The prison is in Newport Twp., but it is only accessible from U.S. Route 11 in Hunlock Creek. A distinctive feature of the complex is a bridge that spans the river. Staff and visitors have to cross the bridge, from Hunlock Creek to Newport Twp., to get to the prison.
In 2017, the state Department of Corrections listed the “pros and cons” for each of five prisons that were being considered for closure in an internal report of recommendations for possible prison closures. The limited access to the prison was cited by the department as one reason the prison was a candidate for closure. The lone access road is a problem because during bad floods, like in 2011, the prison is left in “complete isolation” because flooding shuts down Route 11 in both directions, according to a memo released by the department.
Repairs done, needed
The report notes a total of $914,020 in repairs have recently been completed at SCI-Retreat with several major projects underway.
The work completed included roof repairs, a new steam pipe installation, a steam tunnel replacement, repairs to a wheelchair lift, renovations to the main lobby and emergency bridge repairs.
Future work needed at the aging prison was cited as main reason to close it. The work includes:
• The bridge, built in 1898 and moved to SCI-Retreat grounds in 1951, is in the middle of a $2 million repair project and currently is down to one lane due to safety issues. Additionally, it will cost $1 million to paint the bridge to prevent future corrosive damage. Total replacement, recommended by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, would cost between $15 million and $20 million.
• Three aging oil-fired burners, last modified in 1969, have passed their service life and replacement parts are not available.
• Necessary new road and parking lot paving is estimated to cost $1 million.
• A perimeter security system needs replacement at a cost of $1.2 million.
After SCI-Retreat closes, the state has agreed to continue to pay its quarterly $32,000 bill to the Shickshinny Sanitary Sewer Authority for five years. The prison accounts for 48% of the authority’s business. Additionally, the state will keep paying its obligation of $37,411 per month to the authority for capital improvement projects until reaching the total it owes of $352,646.
After it’s closed, the cost to keep the utilities on, maintain the property, and keep it secure will total about $1.2 million per year, the report said.
The state hasn’t announced any plans for the property after it closes. The report notes that selling a prison is “challenging,” as SCI-Pittsburgh, which closed last year, sits vacant without a buyer. However, other prisons, such as SCIs Cresson and Greensbured, have sold for $600,000 and $950,000 respectively, the report said.

1/7/2020
Coroner: Newport Twp. baby’s death accidental
jhalpin@citizensvoice.com

A baby found dead at her family’s Newport Twp. home over the weekend died after accidentally asphyxiating, according to the Luzerne County Coroner’s Office.
While the death was determined to be accidental, police say their investigation continues with Luzerne County prosecutors and Luzerne County Children and Youth.
Nora Riera, 6 months, was found unresponsive at 48 Arch St. in the Glen Lyon section of Newport Twp. around 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
An autopsy Dr. Gary Ross conducted Monday afternoon revealed Riera died of “asphyxiation due to mechanical compression,” according to the coroner’s office. The manner of death was ruled accidental.
After responding to the home for the death investigation, police summoned a township code enforcement officer, who determined the residence was unfit for human habitation because of squalid living conditions.
Several pets were also removed from the home, police said.
Despite the death being ruling accidental by the coroner’s office, state police are still investigating, said Cpl. Robert Betnar, crime unit supervisor for state police at Shickshinny.
“Is the investigation over? No, it’s not closed,” Betnar said. “We are continuing to work with the district attorney’s office and Children and Youth.”
No charges have been filed in the case.

1/5/2020
Infant's death investigated in Glen Lyon
spanny@citizensvoice.com

State police are investigating the death of a 6-month-old girl in Glen Lyon.
On Saturday, a Newport Twp. Code Enforcement Officer was called to assist at the scene of the child’s death at 48 Arch St., according to a release from state police at Shickshinny. The Code Enforcement Officer determined the residence was “unfit for human inhabitation” and cited the “squalid” living conditions discovered inside.
According to police, an autopsy for the child is scheduled for a later date, and both the cause and manner of death are pending the autopsy and further investigation. An officer from the Shickshinny station said they were not commenting on anything related to the investigation at this time.
Also according to the release, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was contacted and assisted in the removal of several animals from inside the residence. Other organizations who are assisting in the investigation are the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, the Luzerne County Coroner’s Office, the Newport Twp. Police Department, and the Pennsylvania State Forensic Services Unit.

Municipal Building - 351 W. Kirmar Ave. Nanticoke, PA 18634 - Phone 570-735-4735 - FAX 570-735-5595