DeWeese: "No real complaint" about life in lockup

ASSOCIATED PRESS Former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, seen here on his way to a hearing in 2010, has adjusted to life in state prison.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, seen here on his way to a hearing in 2010, has adjusted to life in state prison.
Posted: August 13, 2013

HUNLOCK CREEK, Pa. - Sixty-three-year-old Bill DeWeese works out with Muslims from Philadelphia.

"They're fired up and focused and extremely fit," he says.

"I have a very intense workout schedule," he adds, including weight training, playing on a softball team and taking a "fitness-over-40" class three times a week.

This is courtesy of taxpayers.

It takes place in Retreat state prison, an old and isolated medium-security facility along the Susquehanna River behind fences and seven rows of razor wire just southwest of Wilkes-Barre.

The exercise equipment is "the best of the state's 25 jails," donated decades ago by the Philadelphia Eagles.

"Feel that left bicep," he offers.

Guess hard time has its pluses.

When not exercising or at chow or taking computer classes, DeWeese is locked for 15 hours a day in a 12-by-8-foot "hut" - Cell 13 on "B" Block.

His "celly" is a 74-year-old child molester serving seven to 14 years, a second stretch. DeWeese says the guy might have five teeth. Other inmates - there are 1,151 here of every stripe - call such offenders "cho-mos" or "touchers."

I'm visiting Howard William DeWeese, Inmate KN1888, at his invitation.

Before and after all visits, inmates are strip-searched.

He tells me that during this pre-visit cavity search, he asks a guard, "What? You think I have M&M's up my ass for the Philadelphia Daily News?"

He laughs at this. He says the guard laughed, too.

This tells you DeWeese is as he always was: jovial, upbeat, entertaining. Even while serving 2 1/2 to five years for theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest related to the use of public money for political campaigns.

He's one of seven former Pennsylvania legislative leaders experiencing the incarceration side of the justice system. Number eight, Vince Fumo, was just released from federal prison to house, I mean mansion, arrest.

DeWeese keeps up with the news. He has cable TV in his "hut" for $16 a month.

He's here since June 2012 and he's adjusted: "No real complaint," except for "deplorable" food.

Three things, he says, keep a lid on prisons: omnipresent cameras, tobacco products and TV.

When I ask what surprises him most, he says, "the camaraderie . . . that men who made serious mistakes in their past could realize a sense of fraternity and good feeling for each other."

He's seen four fistfights, one suicide and one attempted suicide.

Every day starts at 6 a.m. with a loudspeaker: "Count time, count time. Stand up. Turn the lights on. Stand for count."

There are four counts every day. No one's ever escaped.

DeWeese, of course, believes he doesn't belong here. His conviction is under appeal. If he loses the appeal, the earliest he can be paroled is March 2014.

When he gets out, he wants to volunteer for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an inmates' rights group, maybe teach and work in government affairs.

A former world traveler known for studying one topic a year, he now studies criminal justice, having lived through every phase.

He claims he's "happy," and quotes author Philip Roth: "For the purest sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence."

He doesn't know where it's from. It's from Roth's novel Sabbath's Theater which won a 1995 National Book Award.

DeWeese's life has been public service: After college at Wake Forest, a three-year stint in the Marines; then elected to the state House from Greene County, serving until last year, a total of 36 years; and rising through the ranks to House speaker. Now he wears a brown jumpsuit, no pockets, one zipper, with DOC (Department of Corrections) in big letters on the back.

He has no prison job because after age 60 it's not required. But he did run the ice-cream stand, a freezer in "the yard" with popsicles and ice-cream sandwiches, every Wednesday during July.

"I told a guard, 'I'm upstate for five counts of theft and they got me guarding the ice-cream machine,' " he says.

He laughs. He says the guard laughed, too.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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