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PA's Prison Population Is Finally Going Down, But What Are We Doing For The People Still Inside?

Keith Srakocic
This Jan. 26, 2017, shows a sign outside the entrance to the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh before it's closure.

Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel began his criminal justice career in 1989, just as the commonwealth's prison population began to balloon.

It was the beginning of America's mass incarceration era -- one that Wetzel said his office is only now beginning to reverse.

On this week's episode of 90.5 WESA's Criminal Injustice podcast, host and University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris talked to Wetzel about those changes and what his office has done to better treat the men and women still inside.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JOHN WETZEL: We're certainly trending in the right direction. We have 3,000 fewer inmates than we had five years ago. We also have three fewer prisons. One of the first things we did under the Gov. Tom Corbett administration is stop construction of a new prison in southwest Pennsylvania, so had we not pushed these reforms, we would literally have four more prisons and probably another $250 million a year operating costs.

DAVID HARRIS: So we're down to 25 prisons from 27, down 3,000 inmates from the peak in 2012?

WETZEL: Yes. The good news is that population is down. The bad news is that number of addicted individuals and number of individuals with mental illness continues to climb.

HARRIS: And those are difficult problems for a prison system to deal with.

WETZEL: Yeah, especially the individuals with mental illness coming into the harsh environment that is a state prison. It's a very challenging population and our staff has to manage on a day-to-day basis.

HARRIS: How is the state prison system adapted to treating people with specific needs?

WETZEL: We do three things: One, we had to make sure we were accurately identifying folks who come in the front door with a mental illness. Two, we had to train our staff better. We had to give our staff, especially our correctional officers, the tools to be successful in dealing with challenging mentally ill individuals. Part of those tools are a knowledge of and an understanding of mental illness and how to manage that. And then three, build up an infrastructure to make sure we can deliver treatment. And then also related to that, create re-entry opportunities for these folks where we can plug them into the behavioral health safety net in their community on the way out so they don't come back.

HARRIS: As far as resources you can offer -- training, education, what else?

WETZEL: Vocational training, but then also programs to help people have the skills to be successful. Things like conflict resolution and those kinds of things that a lot of us take for granted. But the individual has to do the work. We provide the opportunity so we can have people leave here less likely to commit a crime than when they came in our front door.

HARRIS: In the last decade or so, the system has focused more on reintegrating inmates into society because, of course, the great majority of incarcerated people actually, eventually, come home. What can a prison system do to prepare inmates, especially in a state like ours, where there is a very limited opportunity for expungement of one's record?

WETZEL: So the first thing is to provide marketable job skills, and implicit in that is that we actually pay attention to what kind of jobs our folks can get when they get out. We're really approaching the employment piece just like a community college does when a kid shows up. Looking at what their aptitude, ability and interests are and trying to match them up with training on the inside so they can connect to the outside.

HARRIS: Give us a specific example. What kind of training would somebody get?

WETZEL: At Cambridge Springs, for instance, we train the ladies to be optical technicians. A lot of people wear glasses. That means you need to have people who know how to make glasses. That's a super marketable skill. Warehousing -- Pennsylvania, especially along some of our corridors like the 81 corridor, we have a lot of warehousing. We do Serve Safe certificates. Every restaurant has to have an employee who has their Serve Safe certificate. That's a really marketable job skill for folks coming out of prison. There's three examples of things that translate from inside to outside. 

You can hear David Harris’ full conversation with John Wetzel on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes or through your favorite podcast app.