BELLEFONTE - Long lines of sight, a seemingly endless number of security cameras and armed guards at nearly every turn evokes a sense of constant exposure at a new state prison in Benner Township.
Corrections officials touted the new $200 million State Correctional Institution at Benner Township as one of the "most secure prototypical prisons" in the country.
The prison's 560 employees - many of whom are transfers from the soon to be shuttered prisons in Cresson and Greensburg - said they have begun to adjust to their new facility, but the process has not been without its challenges.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Captain Rodney Chism explains to Deputy Press Secretary Sue Bensinger how the State Correctional Institution at Benner Township computers open and close cell doors and monitor inmates from the control desk in block H on Monday.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
A crowd tours Block H at the new SCI Benner Township, which was dedicated on Monday. The new facility consists of 46 acres inside the perimeter’s fence and has 10 housing units, an administration building, health services building, dietary services building, a chapel, education complex and an activities/recreation building.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the design of the prison is state-of-the-art and ensures corrections officers have maximum visibility of inmates at any given time.
The prison will serve as a transportation hub for the Corrections Department and represents the future of corrections, he said.
"But also, this provides a great opportunity for our staff," Wetzel said. "That's very important to us, to develop staff."
State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said he wished to welcome corrections officers from the Greensburg and Cresson prisons to Centre County community.
"We do have homes for sale," Benninghoff said to laughter and applause.
Corrections officers and employees at the Cresson and Greensburg prisons were caught by surprise when the closures were announced in January.
Since then, about 85 percent of those employees have been relocated throughout the Corrections Department, officials said. Many of those officers are now employed at the Benner Township facility.
Tom Bearer, an employee of 13 years at SCI Cresson, said the timing of the announcement was "unfortunate," but he has adjusted to the changes.
"I'm optimistic, not pessimistic," Bearer said. "I look at it as an opportunity."
Bearer is one of three teachers employed at the prison.
Inmates spend about 5 hours each day learning math, science, literature arts, writing and social studies while working toward obtaining a General Equivalency Development diploma.
A married man with a family of four, Bearer said the 90-minute commute to Benner Township has been challenging given the rough winter.
Bearer lives in the Carrolltown area but meets with other employees in Ebensburg to carpool to Benner Township.
"It was the closest available for the circumstances," Bearer said of the transfer.
Superintendent Marirosa Lamas praised the hard work of corrections officers in adjusting to the new facility.
Lamas is also the superintendent at the Rockview facility and will be responsible for a combined 4,500 inmates when the new prison opens on April 15.
While touring one of Benner Township's 10 housing blocks, Lamas said the prison is one of the most advanced in the country.
"Security practices are really too many to mention," Lamas said.
The prison is located on 46 acres of the Rockview campus and is just down the road from the older prison.
SCI Benner Township boasts a barber school, library, chapel, three dining areas, gym area with six basketball nets and multiple classroom environments, Lamas said.
Local representatives praised the cost-savings measures and efficiency of the new facility.
"This prison saves you money," state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. "This facility will pay for itself in time and saves us money immediately."
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.