(WBRE/WYOU) — A controversy is unfolding Thursday night in Luzerne County.
It’s over an open mic comment made by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections regarding the planned closure of SCI Retreat in Newport Township. That comment is going viral and it’s sparking outrage across our region.
The comment was made during a public hearing last week in Nanticoke regarding plans to close SCI Retreat. That hearing was held as part of a state law that the public be heard before any final decision can be made to close a state prison but now many people believe the closure decision is already finalized and that the hearing was a dog and pony show.
The comments that were caught on an open mic were made by John Wetzel, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections. They were made during a break in a public hearing last week at Greater Nanticoke High School.
Wetzel could be heard saying on camera “You know what? This does suck. I wish I didn’t have to close this (expletive). It is what it is.”
The comment was actually recorded by media personnel from the Department of Corrections who then posted it onto their YouTube channel. This so the public could see and hear what happened at the hearing.
When asked his reaction to seeing the video, Senator John Yudichak (D) – Luzerne and Carbon Counties said “Disappointed!”
State senators John Yudichak and Lisa Baker came to the Eyewitness News studio to view the video. Yudichak had seen it earlier in the day on social media but this was the first time Senator Baker saw it.
“Well, obviously you could see that the Secretary was clearly communicating his concern about shutting this facility down. It appears to me he really doesn’t want to be going through this process and he didn’t really feel that the facility should be closed and he was asked to do this,” Senator Baker (R) – Luzerne and Wayne Counties said.
The state announced last summer that SCI Retreat would be closed to save taxpayers millions of dollars. That’s what it would take to renovate the facility. The 1,100 inmates would be transferred to other state prisons. The 400 employees would be offered positions at other state prisons.
This is not the first time SCI has been on the state’s hit list. It was targeted for closure two years ago, but public outcry convinced the state to keep it open. Act 133 was passed into law and it mandates public hearings be held before any state prison can be closed to measure the impact on a local community, but now Baker and Yudichak have serious doubts about the SCI Retreat closure process.
“I don’t want to see it as a foregone conclusion but quite frankly we have to have the administration step forward and say they are going to follow the act,” Baker said.
“Now the question that needs to be asked, does the administration respect the general assembly, the will of the people who passed Act 133?” Yudichak said.
Eyewitness News reached out to the Department of Corrections. We were supposed to interview Secretary Wetzel about the comment. We were told something had come up with his schedule and he would get back to us. We never did hear back.
A spokesperson for Governor Tom Wolf insists that the state is following Act 133 and a final decision has not been made.