Leaders in the House - cellmates in the Big House

Posted: June 07, 2012

HARRISBURG — For a quarter of a century, Bill DeWeese and John M. Perzel waged fierce political battles on the state House floor, both climbing to the pinnacle of power.

As speakers of the House, they occupied prime real estate off the Capitol Rotunda. By day they cut deals in mahogany-paneled offices; by night they were wined and dined by lobbyists. Their portraits hang in a marble hall, a few feet from those of their predecessors Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Hamilton.

Now DeWeese and Perzel are sharing a cell.

DeWeese, a Greene County Democrat, and Perzel, a Northeast Philadelphia Republican, each 62 years old, are sharing a 6-foot-by-10-foot cinder-block cell in a state prison across the Susquehanna River, within sight of the Capitol dome. They dress in prison blues, and get three squares and three trips to the exercise yard a day. At night they retire to bunk beds within reach of their toilet and sink; a single coat hook is their closet.

Both sentenced to multiyear prison terms for political corruption, the two are temporary roommates at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill until they are processed and given their permanent housing in the prison system.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Sue Bensinger would not say whether the two were cell mates — only that they were living in the same 120-inmate housing unit with other new arrivals.

But a source close to one of the men confirmed reports they had been assigned a cell together during the four-to-six-week period after sentencing, when inmates undergo psychological, educational, and vocational testing to determine which of the state’s 25 men’s prisons is the best fit.

With the sentencing Monday of former State Sen. Jane Orie (R., Allegheny) to two to 10 years in her corruption trial, the system now houses an extraordinary number of former lawmakers — five in all — brought down by investigations targeting the use of public funds for political purposes.

In March, Perzel pleaded guilty to using sophisticated computer programs funded by taxpayers to win political campaigns. In May, a jury convicted DeWeese of using government workers to campaign on state time. Both are serving 2½-to-5-year sentences.

For a few days at Camp Hill, DeWeese shared a cell with his former chief of staff, Mike Manzo, who took a plea deal and helped convict his old boss.

At Camp Hill, the former lawmakers have limited access to controlled computers (no Google, only legal material). They can receive visitors as well as make phone calls. When they get their final housing assignments — which could be miles from Harrisburg, and hundreds of miles apart — they will don the cocoa-brown uniform of long-term residents and be given prison jobs that pay 19 cents an hour.

Said Bensinger, "They usually start in food service" — which is where Perzel got his start 40 years ago, waiting tables at a Philadelphia restaurant.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.

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