Halfway-house system on radar of Pa. corrections chief

John Wetzel , Pennsylvania's secretary of corrections, has been doing some firsthand research into why the state's halfway houses are not transitioning prisoners properly. DAVID SWANSON / Staff
John Wetzel , Pennsylvania's secretary of corrections, has been doing some firsthand research into why the state's halfway houses are not transitioning prisoners properly. DAVID SWANSON / Staff
Posted: May 28, 2013

HARRISBURG - At 6-foot-3, with the broad build of the collegiate offensive lineman he once was, John Wetzel rarely slips into a room unnoticed.

But a few weeks ago, Wetzel, now in his third year as Pennsylvania's secretary of corrections, made an unannounced stop at a halfway house near the Capitol and went unrecognized by the facility's director.

Identifying himself as a Corrections Department employee, he said he just wanted to take a tour.

In fact, Wetzel was on a mission that has taken him to the far corners of the state to find out why halfway houses for inmates were failing in their role as the bridge between prison and the real world.

"I can't figure out stuff behind my desk," Wetzel said, piloting his black Dodge Charger down Harrisburg streets on a rainy morning, en route to surprise visits at four facilities. "I go out looking for bad news. I want to understand what's not working so we can restructure the system."

He's not exaggerating about restructuring.

With 51,370 inmates, Pennsylvania has the sixth-largest prison system in the nation and a budget of $1.8 billion. Only education and welfare consume more of the state general fund, and Wetzel, tasked with reining in costs, has closed two prisons and halted construction of a third.

But he is going far beyond cost-cutting. He wants better results from halfway houses. He's overseeing the building of a women's prison at Graterford that will put many female inmates closer to their families. He has successfully advocated for new sentencing laws that let nonviolent offenders complete sentences in their communities.

"They used to think it was about locking people up and throwing away the key," Wetzel said. "Now it's about outcomes."

A surprise choice

His nomination by Gov. Corbett in 2011 to run the state's 26-prison system surprised some. Wetzel was 41, warden of a county prison 50 miles west of Harrisburg, and coaching college football on the side.

"There were people in the Capitol who raised eyebrows," said Sen. Richard Alloway (R., Franklin), who lobbied Corbett to choose Wetzel, knowing it was a longshot.

He was named to oversee a system growing so fast that the previous administration shipped hundreds of inmates out of state to ease overcrowding.

Since then, Wetzel has distinguished himself as arguably the most dynamic Corbett cabinet member, taking steps that gained national attention, and winning admirers on both sides of the aisle.

"I've got to say he's my favorite Corbett appointee," said Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), ranking Democrat on the state Senate Judiciary Committee. "He's very accessible, very reasonable. He's bold, and he's not ideological."

"He's done a fabulous job," said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who is chairman of the committee and who in 35 years in the legislature has worked with nine heads of corrections.

Greenleaf said Wetzel's having not been a career official at the state agency "allowed him to look at the system as an outsider."

Among his few detractors: the corrections officers' union, angry that its members got no advance word of January's announcement that two Western Pennsylvania prisons would close next month.

"Despite working one of the most dangerous jobs in the state, many of our members found out about the closings through the media," union president Roy Pinto said in an e-mail. "It was clear to all involved, and acknowledged by Secretary Wetzel, that the process implemented to close the state prisons was sloppy and disrespectful."

Wetzel said the move was aimed at saving $23 million. Of 786 employees affected, he said, jobs have been found for all but 25 at facilities within 60 miles of their homes. "We want everyone to have a job," he said.

On Saturday, other critics - a group called Decarcerate PA - were starting a 10-day march from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to protest Wetzel's plan to build two new facilities at Graterford Prison in Montgomery County. The group also wants the existing prison closed instead of mothballed for future use.

"If you build a building, they will fill it," said Thomas Dichter, a graduate student in the group. "We need to reverse the trend of massive prison growth."

William DiMascio, executive director of the Prison Society, an advocacy group founded in 1787 for prisoners and their families, credits Wetzel's leadership on issues such as moving the women's prison to Graterford. But he is skeptical about whether humane alternatives to incarceration can materialize in a tough political environment.

Wetzel "did not spend his entire career in the department, and looks at issues from a different perspective," DiMascio said. "But there is a political side to the equation that is a roadblock."

The halfway houses

Shawna Evans, director of Capitol Pavilion, a privately run, 96-bed halfway house about a mile from the Capitol, guides Wetzel across the polished wood floor of the old factory building unaware she's giving a tour to the man who controls her company's state contract.

Several residents cluster around a TV, watching morning talk shows. Others sleep in dorm rooms; still others are out working, looking for work, or at counseling appointments.

Evans learns Wetzel's identity 15 minutes into the tour. "We ought to put his picture up," she says.

Earlier this year, Wetzel thrust his agency into the national spotlight, and it was an unflattering light. He commissioned a study that found two-thirds of inmates were rearrested or sent back to prison after release. The study identified poorly performing halfway houses as one of the factors. Wetzel said halfway houses needed to do more to help offenders find work - such as by allowing limited Internet access - and to develop "home plans" that designate a suitable place to live so inmates can be released more quickly.

He said geography played a part. "They could be from Philadelphia, getting out of a prison in north-central Pennsylvania, and go to a Pittsburgh halfway house," he said. "We are setting up [halfway house] vendors for failure. It's really just a cheaper prison bed. We need to set up true community centers."

The smell of manure

Wetzel, who is African American, grew up in rural Myerstown, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The adopted son of a trucker and his wife, he was raised amid Amish and Mennonite farms. "I smelled a lot of poop growing up," he said.

He was one of only two or three minorities in his high school. "I didn't know the difference," he said. "Sports was a great equalizer." He went on to play football at Bloomsburg University (and later did a stint with the semipro Central Penn Piranha), working vacations as a prison guard with his brother.

Named warden in Franklin County at 32, he set out to connect the jail to the community. The local legislator, Alloway, was impressed: "He engaged the community to create inmate work programs."

Wetzel still lives in the county with his wife, Theresa, and their four daughters. His day starts about 5 a.m., and he usually tweets inspirational quotations from such disparate sources as Led Zeppelin and Winston Churchill. "I've always been a quote guy," Wetzel said. He said the messages were part of his mission at the state agency.

"I'm interested in developing leaders, and I demand results," he said. "No one wants to brag about a 40 percent recidivism rate."

On the road again

Another stop on Wetzel's rainy-morning ride is the old Harrisburg State Hospital, where one building is now a halfway house.

Men are lined up with forms in hand, awaiting approval to leave for work or appointments. Wetzel pauses to chat with a man still in his bunk who tells him he's "staying busy."

Wrong answer.

Wetzel wants to hear a plan for the day, the week, the future. He was distressed to find several men still asleep.

"Too many guys are lying around," he said. "They say they were working late, but I don't know."

He heads back out into the damp chill. "One thing I know: I learn something every time I go out."


Contact Amy Worden

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

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