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Pennsylvania's corrections chief advocates reform

| Saturday, June 8, 2013, 3:15 p.m.
'We don't want to catch little fish,' said State Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel.
'We don't want to catch little fish,' said State Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel.

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, 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 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.”

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.”

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, 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 Nick 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.

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