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New warden sees need for increased emphasis on treatment at Pa. prison

March 11, 2002|BY STACEY DANZUSO

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - John Wetzel is a tall, imposing man, and as he walks through the Franklin County Prison, the new warden quickly draws the attention of most inmates.

Bogged down with paperwork, learning names and policies, the jail's top administrator takes the time to hear from one man how his meeting with a counselor went and to promise another he will look for papers from his lawyer.

Looking at the yellow cinderblock cells that are nearly as old as he, Wetzel, 32, says there is a lot of work to be done.

"We are hurting for counseling space," he said, identifying the prison's biggest problem.

With an average of 344 inmates a day last month, the prison is generally at or above capacity, which leads to tripling inmates in cells and leaves almost no room for counseling sessions.

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"We have to find some way to address the crowding," said Wetzel, who came to Franklin County in January from the Berks County (Pa.) Prison.

"When the system gets overloaded like it is now, it really takes a toll on everybody," he said.

But that is a problem he can't solve alone, and while the county prepares for a second study of the jail, Wetzel thinks a more immediate change needs to be made in the counseling program.

"The direction I feel this place needs to go in the next five years is toward a bigger emphasis on treatment, with more options," he said.

Wetzel has worked as a corrections officer, counselor and director of training and staff development in the last 12 years, and knows firsthand what the benefits of increased counseling can do for inmates.

"More treatment would take a tremendous burden off officers," he said.

He wants to put a greater emphasis on anger management and life skills classes.

But he warned, "Treatment doesn't operate in a vacuum. It's a combination of counseling, expectations by officers and holding inmates accountable."

Wetzel has spent the last seven weeks assessing the counseling program, learning his way around the facility and its policies.

Still commuting from Lebanon County, Pa., Wetzel arrives between 6:30 and 7 a.m. most days, and shoots to make it in by 5 a.m. once a week so he can see the officers working the third sift.

"At this point it's not a 40-hour-a-week job, and I'm not a 40-hour-a-week guy," he said, but added that he plans to move to Franklin County after the birth of his fourth child this month.

While he said it was premature for him to form any opinions on whether the county should renovate the existing jail or build a new one, Wetzel said he is working to streamline operations and to make the jail more efficient overall.

He also wants a cleaner jail, where the beds are made and inmates dress appropriately.

"That's what I was used to. That's the directions we are headed in here," he said.

But Wetzel said he is still a few weeks from prioritizing exactly what needs to be done.

"I don't know what my role will be a year from now," he said. "I've had to learn policy and procedure. At this point everything is an assessment."

Wetzel admitted that when he applied for the job he never expected he would wind up in the warden's office.

"I interviewed to see where I was at, and to see what I would have to do to get in position for a job like this" in the future, he said.

But after a tour of the prison and a second interview with the Franklin County Prison Board, Wetzel believed he made a solid connection and could make a difference.

The feeling was mutual.

The Prison Board received 28 applications in the six months after Ray Rosenberry retired as warden last June, and board members were extremely impressed by Wetzel, calling him "engaging" and a corrections professional "on his way up."

Wetzel is among the youngest wardens in the state and said he is excited about the opportunities ahead.

"I feel there is some room to grow here," he said.

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