John Wetzel is considered a thought leader on incarceration in the United States. He currently serves as the Secretary of the Department of Corrections for the State of Pennsylvania.
With nearly 25 years of experience, his career began in Lebanon County (PA) as a corrections officer in 1989. His time there was followed by nine years at Berks County (PA) where he served as a correctional officer, a counselor, a treatment supervisor, and finally the director of the training academy. Then, in January 2002, he began his nine-year tenure as warden of the Franklin County (PA) Jail. It was there where he was credited with leading an effort that resulted in the transformation of their correctional system.
Under his leadership, Franklin County saw a 20% reduction in their population while the crime rate declined. Franklin County was at the forefront of maximizing their correctional continuum to reduce reliance on incarceration, while focusing on improving outcomes for offenders. Specifically they developed a day reporting center, established a jail industries program, and initiated several programs targeting improved services for mentally ill offenders, including a certified peer specialist program.
He is a member of Harvard’s Executive Session on Community Corrections, which is a joint project of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Consisting of 30 of the leading policymakers, practitioners and researchers from across the country, the intent is to shape the future of corrections policy in the United States.
Wetzel expressed that overall America needs a value shift.
His expert interview is below.
Q: What are the biggest shifts that need to happen in the U.S. prison system now?
1. There needs to be a value shift in America. We need to recognize the humanity of people even when they commit crimes.
2. We should expect to get outcomes from our [prison] system. And those outcomes are simple: That people leave our system less likely to commit a crime than when they came in. But if that was the focus of our decision-making, we’d have a hell of lot less people locked up.
Q: What are the needs of inmates right now? What needs are not being met?
Wetzel: We need to be successful. So the easiest way to think about it is to reverse engineer. So let’s look at the characteristics that we see generally of the people who come to us. 50% of the people who come into my prison system don’t have a high school diploma. So clearly education is a key piece.
It’s not a coincidental that people come from our most disadvantaged areas where the school districts have also been decimated… I’ll put like this: If we were coming up with a grand scheme for how to identify a group to lock up - we’d decimate their school system, we’d eliminate any real economic opportunity, and we’d break up their families. Frankly, that’s an accurate description of our poor urban areas and our poor rural areas too.
[The needs are] - I really think education, economic opportunity, and some support system.
Q: Can you talk about solitary confinement?
Wetzel: It’s certainly overused. We assume in corrections - if you do something wrong, we gotta lock you up. But we really didn’t look at the implications of that. It has been overused and it should be used less.
Over the last three years, my colleagues and I around the country have been pushing to make the use of it much less. Especially for vulnerable populations - the mentally ill, the elderly, juveniles.
However, on the other end -- there are some individuals who are very dangerous. One of my roles to review cases of individuals in solitary confinement long term. You read a case about someone who is walking by their cell and another inmate grabs them, cuts them, tied them up, sexually assaults them, and tortures them -- are you going to be the one to let that person out? So It’s not a one dimensional or two-dimensional discussion. I would challenge to give a 360 degree perspective on solitary.
Other Topics: Challenges And How To Help Inmates
The Need For Mentors
Wetzel: Bret Bucklen did a study in ‘09 looking at parole violators and those on parole who are being successful. And the difference between those two groups was not work, not staying away from drugs. It was individuals who had a mentor were more likely to stay out. It just really speaks to ‘pro-social support.’ None of us got to where we are without help. I know there’s that crowd that says ‘I just hiked up my pants and did it myself.’ But that’s bullshit. You know what I mean? Everyone who is successful has someone who helps them. And continues to help them. The same is true for those who go through a prison system.
Wetzel: 70% of the people in my stem suffer from a substance use issue. So part of the puzzle, is sobriety or responsible use. That’s something we have to acknowledge. Especially with the national opiate crisis.
Mental Health Issues
Wetzel: The other factor is the number of mentally ill individual that come from our prison system. The fact that we’ve made our justice system a de facto mental health system. I’m responsible to deliver mental health care for 12,000 individuals (in PA alone) - that’s ridiculous.
It’s looking at what the drivers are and looking at what individual solutions will work. Look, everyone wants to feel safe. The problem is we have equated locking people up with being safer. But if we lock the wrong people up, they come out worse.
Why We Can’t Build a Successful Justice / Prison System Based on Anecdotes
Wetzel: We got here by policies around anecdotes. Someone kills Fluffy and the next day I have 20 politicians enacting Fluffy’s Law.
We need to focus on outcomes. Let’s target legislation toward outcomes and goals.
Photo credit: Pennlive.com