New prisons sit idle as states cope with busted budgets
By CHARLES SHEEHAN, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH (January 8, 2003 6:41 a.m. EST) - States have spent millions of dollars building new prisons to ease pressure on existing facilities, but many haven't been able to open as state budget crunches have left little money to operate them.
In Pennsylvania, where the inmate population recently topped 40,000 for the first time, new prisons were recently built in Forest and Fayette counties. But the Department of Corrections has put off their opening until at least 2004 to satisfy a state mandate to cut spending.
The department was asked to cut $15 million from its budget to help close a state deficit projected to hit $433 million this summer.
"The department either had to lay people off or delay opening these prisons," said Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. "It's not like we don't need the space - we really do. We just don't have the money."
Pennsylvania is not alone, said Joe Weedon, the legislative liaison for the American Correctional Association, an industry group.
"State departments of corrections are being asked by their governors to streamline budgets to meet cost limitations," Weedon said. "Many states,
including Pennsylvania, have elected to delay the opening of facilities as a way of meeting those budgetary obligations."
Weedon could not say how many states have chosen to delay opening new prisons, but corrections officials from several states confirmed that prisons have not been opened or have been closed for budgetary reasons.
In Illinois, the $143 million maximum-security Thompson Correctional Center was completed months ago, slated to house 2,200 inmates. But it
remains empty because of a budget crunch in that state.
"It's just sitting there," said spokesman Brian Fairchild. "We don't have any money."
Nevada closed down a wing of the Nevada State Prison to cut costs. Jackie Crawford, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, said she is also recommending the cancellation of a planned $35 million expansion at the state's High Desert Prison to save as much as $3 million in annual operating costs.
In Wisconsin, a $48 million prison completed last year remains closed and its future is uncertain.
"We have 3,500 prisoners housed in other states right now," Wisconsin Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Clausius said. "But the state,
depending on who you talk to, is facing a $2.8 billion biennium deficit."
Pennsylvania has seen its inmate population rise to 40,062 as of Tuesday - up more than 3,200 from last year's figure, McNaughton said. The prison system has a capacity of 34,433.
"We double-cell lot of inmates," she said. "We're just getting to the point where we really need the space."
Prison officials in each state emphasized that the prisons remain secure.
The delay in prison openings can be a blow to the surrounding communities, which often look to new prisons as a way to revitalize their economies. Wes Warren, the general manager for two hotels in northwest Pennsylvania, said a new Microtel Inn a few miles from the vacant Forest County prison is about a third of the way through construction.
"If it wasn't for prison, there wouldn't be a hotel," Warren said.
The county consistently has the highest unemployment rate in Pennsylvania.
"We get people up here for the hunting season and then the trout season and that's about it," said county Commissioner Basil Huffman. "As soon as people knew the prison was coming, a lot of that's changed. We've got a lot riding on that prison."