Wetzel reflects on prison career

January 16, 2011|By JENNIFER FITCH |
  • John Wetzel, warden of the Franklin County (Pa.) Jail, is poised to become secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
File photo

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — John Wetzel’s first prison job had him breaking up fights for $7.20 an hour.

Now, Wetzel is poised to become secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

“It’s almost overwhelming. I’m just excited to be part of guiding how Pennsylvania administers criminal justice,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel, 41, is awaiting Pennsylvania Senate confirmation of his nomination made by Gov.-elect Tom Corbett, who will be sworn in Tuesday. Once confirmed, he will leave behind the Franklin County (Pa.) Jail, where he took over as warden in January 2002.

Wetzel was studying psychology in college when he took a part-time job at a prison in Lebanon County, Pa. Described by him now as “a good, entry-level job,” Wetzel started working in corrections full time in 1992.

He left a prison in Berks County, Pa., when offered the job of warden in Franklin County. The timing placed him at the forefront of an effort to close the existing prison in favor of a 470-bed, $28 million jail on Opportunity Avenue.

Moving 350 inmates between the facilities in 2007 took 12 hours using county resources, as well as a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections bus and Pennsylvania State Police escorts, Wetzel said.

“We had been testing everything the week before,” he said.

Because something like a discarded construction nail could be a weapon, officials did a final search of the new jail and placed the old one on lockdown before telling even officers the unannounced move date had arrived.

The greatest benefit of the new jail is improved safety for officers, with fewer assaults reported in the years following the move, Wetzel said.

“It increased our ability to manage inmates,” he said.

Wetzel, a Chambersburg resident, said the jail would have needed 600 beds if not for the county’s criminal justice reforms, including development of the Franklin County Day Reporting Center. That center provides drug, alcohol and behavioral-modification programs for nonviolent criminal offenders.

Recently released results of a three-year study found 18.2 percent of Day Reporting Center clients were re-arrested, which compares to national statistics of 67.5 percent. The national data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics is based on state prisons.

“I think the warden was able to articulate the purposes of a DRC program in a way that each of (the key) people could see the advantages,” DRC Director Kim Eaton said in an e-mail.

Although the jail has about 100 beds not used by county inmates on any given day, Wetzel said the vacancies allow for rentals for neighboring Fulton County, Pa., and the U.S. Marshals Service. Rentals yielded $950,000 in revenue in 2010.

The number of empty beds also can be misleading because segments of the inmate population are divided on criteria such as gender and mental-health issues, Wetzel said.

In hindsight, Wetzel said the one change he’d make to the new jail is the size of the courtroom, which is used a few days a week. He said it should have been built to mirror the ones found in courthouses.

Wetzel said he’s most proud of the 150-person jail staff and the system improvements made through the Criminal Justice Advisory Board. The major remaining issues he identified for Franklin County involve the U.S. 30 courthouse, including its security and criminal case backlog.

The sooner a nonviolent offender is sentenced, the sooner that person can be assigned to work-release or community service to benefit the county, Wetzel said. Housing an inmate costs $65 a day, with the average stay being 40 to 50 days, he said.

Wetzel said the general public would be surprised to learn the vast majority of inmates are regular people who made bad decisions, most often the result of drugs or alcohol.

“They made bad choices,” he said.

When a new warden is chosen for the Franklin County Jail, that person will be working with a good team of people, Wetzel said.

He said it’s hard to leave those people as he now turns his attention to a multibillion-dollar state budget deficit and an increasing state prison population.

“John Wetzel brought true reform to corrections in Franklin County. This reform put ‘correct’ back into corrections and literally saved county taxpayers millions over the years,” Franklin County Commissioner Bob Thomas said.

“The Pennsylvania correctional system needs reform, too. I am confident as secretary, he will succeed there, too,” he said.

The commissioners and county prison board will start advertising for a new warden, Thomas said.

“I think it could be someone’s dream job to come in to a jail as well-designed and managed as ours,” Eaton said, adding that Wetzel leaves behind an excellent team.

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