DOC Misleads Public to Justify $400 Million Prison Project

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]  For more on why prison expansion is bad for Pennsylvania, click HERE.

Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has stated on numerous occasions that the decision to build new facilities rather than renovating the existing Graterford was based on a cost-benefit study conducted by the DOC before construction began. He specifically referenced this cost-benefit study numerous times, including when he was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections at a public hearing on the planned closure of SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg on February 13, 2013[4].

Members of Decarcerate PA, as well as several state legislators, made repeated efforts to request the study between June 2012 and August 2013, including a Right-to-Know request and appeal. Initially all requests were either dismissed or flat-out denied. However, on September 12, 2013, the DOC reversed its decision and provided Decarcerate PA with four documents. None of these documents constitute a legitimate cost-benefit study and the numbers in these documents clearly do not support the need for new prison construction. Given that the DOC, under threat of perjury, insists that these documents represent the entirety of the internal “cost benefit study” on which the decision to launch the second most expensive construction project in state history rests, we are disturbed by their obvious inadequacy and the misleading nature of what they contain. As a result, we urge the House and Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings to investigate whether the DOC intentionally mislead members of the legislature and whether this information calls into question the construction of SCI Phoenix I and II.

The Patriot News published an op ed from Decarcerate PA covering these issues, and reporter Dan Denvir wrote an investigative article about the study for the Philadelphia City Paper.

All four documents we recieved from the Department of Corrections are available for download HERE Outlined briefly below, we highlight the main flaws of the “cost-benefit study”:

  • The alleged savings in the “cost-benefit study” rely on closing not only SCI Graterford, but also SCI Greensburg, and replacing both older prisons with two newer facilities. Secretary Wetzel already closed SCI Greensburg 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.
  • The documents project that it would cost more to operate SCI Phoenix I and II than the existing SCI Graterford. That means that the $400 million construction costs, coupled with the millions in debt service that taxpayers will pay on that construction cost, will actually result in facilities that cost taxpayers more to maintain.
  • Any savings generated by newer facilities, according to these documents, would depend on staff layoffs, because they show that much of the difference in cost between older and newer facilities is based on staffing costs.
  • In his testimony before the House & Senate Judiciary Committees at the beginning of 2013, Wetzel stated that the DOC did not consider closing SCI Greensburg until late summer or fall of 2012. These documents clearly show that the DOC had been considering closing SCI Greensburg for years.
  • These documents use SCI Mahanoy and SCI Fayette as stand-ins for Phoenix I & II, however there is little information given to substantiate the claim that these facilities are 1) similar to each other or 2) reasonable proxies for the new facilities.
  • SCI Mahanoy and SCI Fayette have a fairly different cost-per-prisoner ratio (approx. $24,000 and $33,000 respectively). Without justification, the study claims the cost-per-prisoner will be much closer to the lower of those two numbers (approx. $25,000).
  • The estimated “annual operating cost” of the new facilities is an unexplained $16 million lower than the stated annual operating cost of SCI Mahanoy and SCI Fayette; this adjustment accounts for half of the savings.
  • Savings presented in one document include a disclaimer that reads: “These calculations were made in 2007 but the costs and staffing are proportionately the same.” Closer inspection of the document shows, however, that while some numbers have changed – such as the “annual cost per inmate” of the two new institutions –some have been kept at 2007 levels, such as “annual cost per inmate” of SCI Graterford. There is no explanation as to why some numbers have remained at 2007 levels and some have been altered.

Below is an interactive timeline of our efforts to obtain the cost-benefit study from the Department of Corrections

 

Additional Citations/Sources:

Link to Decarcerate PA Debate with Wetzel on WHYY: http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2012/08/01/debating-pennsylvanias-prison-system/

Link to documents provided by the DOC to represent the cost-benefit study:http://decarceratepa.info/DOCdocs



[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] 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.