Pa. prison, 280 jobs in jeopardy after decision from feds

"The loss of these jobs would be a devastating blow to an already struggling community," an official said

By Bret Pallotto
Centre Daily Times

CLEARFIELD COUNTY, Pa. — The agency that oversees federal prisons declined an option to renew its contract for the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center, the real estate group that owns the facility said Wednesday.

About 280 people are set to lose their jobs when the contract expires March 31. The GEO Group operated the 1,878-bed facility for the federal Bureau of Prisons for more than a decade.

The Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership was "extremely disappointed" with the decision, Executive Director Stan LaFuria said.

"Knowing how well-managed and well-maintained this facility has been, we just didn't think that the decision makers in our federal government would close this top-notch facility," LaFuria said.

The aftermath will likely have damaging effect on the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District. GEO Group is the top taxpayer in the district, pouring in nearly $475,000 annually.

Superintendent Gregg Paladina was blunt in his assessment, saying the decision will "rock us to our core."

Jobs cuts within the district are a virtual certainty if a similarly sized company does not step in, Paladina said.

"It's bad. It's really bad," Paladina said. "We can't even raise taxes high enough to make up for that loss. It's going to cost the district jobs undoubtedly; we won't be able to function with half-a-million dollars less coming in every year. It's going to be catastrophic for us, there's no way around it."

The federal government exited the contract as soon as it could have. The agreement featured a five-year base term that began in March 2016, along with annual options for the next five years.

The Clearfield County-based facility is one of 12 privately owned prisons that operate under a contract with the government. The pact paid GEO Group $42 million annually, CEO George Zoley wrote in a statement.

The groundwork for the government to decline its annual options was set just five months after the agreement was signed. The U.S. Department of Justice announced in August 2016 it was phasing out use of private prisons.

Criminal justice reform initiatives under former President Barack Obama aimed to thin the federal prison population, which peaked in 2013.

Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates urged the Bureau of Prisons to either decline all contracts with privately owned facilities or substantially reduce its scope.

About 9% of federal inmates are detained at privately owned facilities, including about 1,640 at the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center. Most are not naturalized citizens who may be deported at the end of their sentence.

It's unclear where inmates may be transferred; the Bureau of Prison did not respond to a request for comment.

The decision also casts uncertainty about the future of the facility. GEO Group plans to market the prison to other federal and state agencies, Zoley said.

The state Department of Corrections is not considering purchasing or contracting with the facility, spokesperson Maria Bivens wrote in an email.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R- Howard, urged Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal to reconsider not extending the contract, writing in a Wednesday letter that it would have a "devastating local economic impact."

"This facility is responsible for approximately 275 family-sustaining jobs with a living wage of about $60,000," Thompson wrote. "In an area which has been hit hard economically due to the pandemic, the loss of these jobs would be a devastating blow to an already struggling community."


(c)2021 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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