DOC Documents RE: Right to Know Request

Pennsylvania is currently spending over $400 million to build two new prisons in Montgomery County on the grounds of SCI Graterford.[1] The two prisons, named SCI Phoenix I and II, are the second most expensive construction project ever undertaken in the state's history.[2] The prisons are being built at a time when the Department of Corrections’ own projections predict a decreasing prison population.[3]

Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel claims that SCI Phoenix I and II will be replacement facilities for the current SCI Graterford, though they will contain almost 1000 more beds than the current facility.[4] Wetzel asserts that building expensive new prisons is more cost effective than renovating the existing prison. According to Wetzel, this decision was based on a cost-benefit study that the Department did before starting construction, which indicated that it would cost $50 million to renovate the existing Graterford.

Decarcerate PA made repeated efforts to obtain a copy of this study, but was consistently rebuffed by the DOC. Eventually, after receiving calls from Legislators, the DOC released a one page spreadsheet.  Decarcerate PA also filed a Right-to-Know Request asking for the cost-benefit study.  The DOC originally denied this request, but reversed their decision on appeal and provided four additional documents.  All of the documents we have received so far appear to be inaccurate and incomplete. Below is a summary of some of the most serious of these inadequacies, followed by a timeline of our efforts to obtain the cost-benefit study from the DOC.  To view the original documents, scroll to the bottom of this page.   You can also download these documents by clicking here.

Analysis of Documents

  • None of these documents appear to be an actual study. We were led to believe that the estimate of $50 million to renovate the existing Graterford came from a detailed assessment of what repairs were needed and estimates from professionals about the cost of those repairs. The initial spreadsheet we received says only “Graterford would require over $50 million in renovation projects to remain open for an extended time.” It contains no information about where this number comes from.                   
  • The documents we received from 2008 explicitly references cost-savings from closing SCI Greensburg. Wetzel has testified before the legislature that the idea of closing Greensburg was not on the table until late 2012 (after the impact of SB100 was apparent), and he first began telling us about the "cost-benefit" study in July 2012. If closing SCI Greensburg was on the table in 2008, then Wetzel intentionally misled legislators when he testified in front of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees about the decision to close Greensburg.
  • As mentioned above, the alleged savings demonstrated in the documents provided rely on closing not only the old SCI Graterford, but also SCI Greensburg, and replacing both older prisons with two newer facilities. Secretary Wetzel already closed SCI Greensburg, however, to justify opening SCI Benner Township, and cannot re-use the same rationale to justify building SCI Phoenix I & II.  Secretary Wetzel may argue that he can close another facility to make up those theoretical savings of closing SCI Greensburg, but Greensburg had a much higher cost per prisoner than any other comparable facility that could now be closed.  This means that SCI Phoenix I and II will likely not result in substantial cost-saving for the DOC.  
  • The documents actually seem like they would support the idea that renovating Graterford is more cost effective than building new prisons, because there is no information indicating that it would cost more to run a renovated Graterford. It only appears to compare the operating costs of Graterford as-is and Phoenix I & II, with no mention of what the annual operating costs would be for a renovated facility.  Additionally, while the cost per inmate at SCI Phoenix I and II is slightly lower than at the current Graterford, the overall projected operating costs of the new prisons are $3.6 million higher than the current Graterford, even when the savings from closing SCI Greensburg are factored in. This is in addition to the $400 million construction costs, and the millions in debt service that taxpayers will pay on the $400 million debt.
  • The documents obtained through the Right-to-Know request  use SCI Mahanoy and SCI Fayette as stand-ins for Phoenix I & II to justify claims about cost-savings. There are numerous problems with this somewhat arbitrary comparison:
  • SCI Fayette and SCI Mahanoy are two very different institutions. In 2008, SCI Fayette’s cost-per-prisoner was $32,813 and SCI Mahanoy’s cost-per-prisoner was $23,961. Yet, the 2008 document shows the total “cost-per-prisoner” of the two hypothetical new institutions as $24,765. Given that SCI Fayette had a higher capacity at the time than SCI Mahanoy, that number would be much higher if it were actually based on those two facilities.
  • The cost-benefit summary page shows the “annual operating cost” of the two new institutions as $103,220,111. This is $16,424,508 lower than the combined cost of operating Fayette and Mahanoy in 2008 based on the 2008 population levels, an unexplained adjustment which accounts for half the "savings" these documents claim to demonstrate.
  • The “cost savings” sheets from 2008 include numerous arbitrary “adjustments” to the operating costs of Graterford, Fayette, and Mahanoy that are entirely unexplained.

Timeline of our efforts to receive the study:

June 27, 2012 – Four members of Decarcerate PA met with Secretary Wetzel to discuss possibilities for prison reform in Pennsylvania. At that meeting, Secretary Wetzel referenced a cost-benefit study that he claimed was the basis for the decision to build Phoenix I & II. We requested a copy of that study, which he said he would send to us. We followed up with his office in writing the following day - and twice more in the weeks after - and Debra Sahd, who works in Wetzel's office, repeatedly assured us that she was waiting for Wetzel to provide her with the study and she would immediately pass it on to us. She never sent any documentation.

August 1, 2012 – Decarcerate PA's Sarah Morris debated Secretary Wetzel on WHYY's Radio Times. Wetzel again asserted that the decision not to renovate Graterford was based on an internal cost-benefit study. Audio of this debate is available at http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2012/08/01/debating-pennsylvanias-prison-system/; Secretary Wetzel references the study at 43:30 to 44:30. At the time of this radio broadcast, Wetzel still had not supplied the study to Decarcerate as requested and promised.

February 13, 2013 – At the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections public hearing on the planned closure of SCI Cresson and Greensburg, Wetzel again referenced the study, saying “If you’re talking about Phoenix, there’s a real function to replace Graterford, and if our population keeps going down, it will end up replacing another facility or two. So we will realize significant cost savings... We can provide you with the cost-benefit analysis and if you look over the lifetime, we will provide you with those numbers, it is obvious--the numbers will speak for themselves.” A video of this hearing is available at http://www.pahousegop.com/wsa.aspx; Secretary Wetzel starts discussing SCI Phoenix I and II at 47:50.

Over the following few months we met with several state legislators who were also interested in seeing the study and who requested it from Secretary Wetzel.

On June 5, 2013 we received an email from Representative Cherelle Parker's office with an attached spreadsheet that Wetzel had indicated was the study. We received the same document from Senator Daylin Leach’s office. This document is attached. We have several concerns about the spreadsheet, which contains very little information, does not support the need for new prisons, and gives no indication that an actual study was done.

On July 10, 2013, Decarcerate PA filed a Right to Know Request asking for any additional information about this “study.” We asked for figures and documentation supporting the $50 it would supposedly cost to renovate Graterford. On July 16, 2013, we received notice that the DOC would require an additional 30 days to give us a final response because a legal review is necessary. On August 16th our request was denied. 

On September 12th, 2013, the Department of Corrections reversed their decision to deny the appeal, and provided us with four documents.  These documents make a series of comparisons between Graterford and other prisons and note alleged cost savings.  However, there is no indication of how the DOC arrived at these numbers, nor is there any indication that any actual study was conducted.  We are continuing to appeal the right-to-know decision in an effort to obtain the source of this data.

We believe that Secretary Wetzel has mislead the General Assembly and the people of Pennsylvania about the extent to which the Department of Corrections investigated the cost and possible savings of renovating the existing facility in order to justify wasting millions on unnecessary prison construction. We are calling on public officials to do everything in their power to halt construction on SCI Phoenix I & II and investigate the DOC’s use of misinformation and false data to justify this construction project, the second most expensive in state history.


[1]            "Corbett Administration Redefines Focus of SCI Graterford Construction Project." Correctional Newsfront. XXXVII.3 (2011): 3-4. Web. 2 Aug. 2013. <http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/press_office__n..., Striving to be Efficient and Effective.

[2]            Denvir, Dan. "For Schools Advocates, $400 Million Prison Expansion Is a Bitter Pill." City Paper. 06 27 2013: n. page. Web. 2 Aug. 2013. <http://www.citypaper.net/news/Built_to_Fill.html?viewAll=y>.

[3]            "Corrections Population Decrease is Largest One-Year Drop Since 1971: Prison Reform Efforts are Showing Results." Correctional Newsfront. XXXIX.1 (2013): 1, 3. Web. 3 Aug. 2013. <http://www.cor.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/press_office__news..., Corrections Population Decrease is Largest One-Year Drop Since 1971.

[4]            Carlin, Sean. "Protesters question need for two new state prisons." Philadelphia Inquirer 19 07 2012, n. pag. Web. 3 Aug. 2013. <http://articles.philly.com/2012-07-19/news/32731264_1_state-prisons-corr....

            Monthly Population Reports from the PA DOC website list Graterford’s Operational Bed Capacity as 3,361. <http://www.cor.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/research___statist....

Department of Corrections Documents re: DPA Right to Know Request