Former offensive lineman and coach JOHN WETZEL ’98 says gridiron lessons came into play as he worked his way up from corrections officer to warden of the Franklin County Prison and, now, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections. “Watching game film, you better check your sensitivity at the door because you’re going to be judged on every step you take. At the Franklin County Prison, we measured ourselves by our own standards, which were always higher. And, that’s what we’re instilling here in the Department of Corrections.”
Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections says he’s discovered certain truths during a career that’s taken him through three county prisons: Lack of a high school diploma and real job skills are key factors behind many incarcerations; placing non-violent, low-risk offenders behind bars is counterproductive; and society’s best bet is to give inmates skills they need for a life outside prison.
“The reality of corrections, even at the state level, is that 90 percent of the people are going to walk out,” says John Wetzel ’98, confirmed as corrections secretary in May 2011. “The fact is the majority of inmates have the potential to be good, productive citizens. It’s in our best interest to create an environment where they can become productive, and that’s through programming, modeling appropriate behavior and increasing their skill set.”
Wetzel received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bloomsburg in 1998, and his corrections career began to take off. He became warden at the Franklin County Prison in January 2002 and, five years later, former Gov. Ed Rendell appointed him to the state Board of Pardons as the corrections expert. The appointment, he says, led to his selection as Gov. Tom Corbett’s corrections secretary.
As warden at Franklin County Prison, Wetzel initiated alternatives to incarceration. He oversaw the construction of a new prison while expanding treatment and program options so jail would be a last resort. And the numbers dropped. When he started as warden, the county had 322 inmates; it had 297 by January 2011.
Wetzel directed the creation of the county’s day reporting center, where offenders who are attending treatment for drug and alcohol abuse or classes to obtain their high school diploma are monitored while living at home instead of at the prison. To make it happen, he worked with the county judges, commissioners, district attorney and other stakeholders in the community.
Today, on average, there are 120 offenders in the county’s day reporting center — people who, before the center, would be sitting behind bars, says David S. Keller, chairman of the Franklin County Commissioners. Keller credits Wetzel with focusing the county’s criminal jus- tice system on a more treatment-oriented approach and coordinating services so someone who is, for example, studying for high school equivalency certification can continue to receive help after release from prison.
“John never lost sight of two main goals: public safety and helping people get their lives back on track,” Keller says. “I think if he’s given the freedom to set some goals and the resources to accomplish them in the way he was in Franklin County, Pennsylvania is going to benefit greatly.”
Wetzel, who lives in Chambersburg with his wife and four daughters, readily acknowledges that his career path has been a bit unusual. He was an indifferent student whose main interest when he came to Bloomsburg was playing on the Huskies offensive line. He credits his adviser, psychology professor Eileen Astor-Stetson, for the advice that would propel him through his career.
“She told me that I wouldn’t be happy working for someone that wasn’t as smart as me, but that’s the path I was headed with my lack of attention to education,” he recalls. “It turns out she was right.”
Wetzel didn’t immediately see the wisdom of his professor’s advice. A semester short of graduating, he left Bloomsburg after the football sea- son in 1991 to take a full-time job as a guard in the Lebanon County Prison, where he’d previously worked part-time and his brother works today. A year later, he became a corrections officer at the Berks County Prison, knowing he wanted to return to Bloomsburg to complete his degree.
During his break from college, he played on the offensive line for the semi-pro Central Penn Piranha for two seasons until he tore his right Achilles tendon. The injury stopped him from playing, but opened the door to coaching the Chambersburg Cardinals semi-pro team and, as a volunteer offensive line coach, the Shippensburg University Raiders.
William DiMascio, executive director of the Philadelphia-based inmate advocacy group Pennsylvania Prison Society, is heartened by Wetzel’s belief in alternatives to incarceration. “Wetzel has shown he’s not of the lock-them-up-and-throw-away- the-key approach,” DiMascio says. “He’s a very bright guy and a very good people person, and he tends to be a lot more humanistic than some of his predecessors.”
Wetzel admits the state’s tight budget presents a challenge to providing needed programing, but he has Corbett’s backing. “In the first cabinet meeting, the governor said it’s important to do the right things, for the right reasons, right now. There may be impediments. My job is to get the impediments out of the way.” •
Jack Sherzer is a professional writer and Pennsylvania native. He currently lives in Harrisburg.