Ex-Rep. DeWeese speaks from behind bars - abc27 WHTM

Ex-Rep. DeWeese speaks from behind bars

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State Correctional Institute Retreat is two hours north of Harrisburg in Luzerne County, about 12 miles south of Wilkes-Barre.

It's remote.

Across a bridge and behind seven rows of razor wire, a former state hospital has been converted into a prison that houses a former state representative.

It is home to Bill DeWeese, one of the most powerful politicians ever to hit Harrisburg. First elected from Greene County in 1976, he was a former speaker and longtime Democratic leader until being forced out at sentencing.

DeWeese will not call the institution Retreat. He prefers it's geographic title Hunlock Creek because, he says, it sounds less wussy than Retreat.

It is not easy for a television reporter to interview a state prison inmate - and I'm not suggesting it should be. We must be put on a list by the inmate and get prior approvals and set a time and then show up and when we do, no cameras are allowed, only notebooks.

In mid-August, we took the trip to Retreat and sat down with DeWeese for three-and-a-half hours, nearly filling a legal-sized notepad. Because hearing his voice is a better alternative for television, we then arranged for DeWeese to call abc27 collect and recorded his voice - with his approval - during the interview.

After crossing the bridge, passing the razor wire and going through two rows of bars, we check in at a front desk of sorts. There is a metal detector and a huge sign, "No underwire bras."

No problem there.

After a half-hour wait, we are escorted to a wide-open meeting room with about a dozen other inmates who are visiting with friends or family. There are vending machines, a guard sitting at a raised desk, and an inmate offering to take photos of the reunions.

The pictures are taken in front of a pull-down backdrop resembling a lush Pennsylvania forest. It is the only thing in the room that could be described as "lush." The photos cost $2 and I bought one since it was the only way to show a TV audience how DeWeese looks after more than a year in prison.

DeWeese has lost his freedom, but not his sense of humor or his infamous vocabulary, which he unleashed on the food at Retreat.

"Deplorable, horrific, ignominious in the extreme," said the man who would frequently wine and dine at the Midstate's finest establishments, often on a lobbyist's dime.

While I was there, he ate a vending machine salad, chips, iced tea, candy bar and coffee. He calls it the best meal he will have until the next visitor.

DeWeese has so much to say and is so happy to have someone to listen that he gushes forth a stream-of-consciousness diatribe that's hard, at first, to follow. He tells me to take notes on things he wants to revisit later in the interview.

But there are a few broad themes and they mostly revolve around prison reform that he'd like to champion when he's released, which could happen in March or April.

He points out that he's a minimum security prisoner who's been placed in a medium security prison. He doesn't specifically say it, but infers that it's payback for being an outspoken critic of Governor Tom Corbett, and calling his prosecution politically motivated.

"There are 1,200 men in this camp and there may be one more white collar person here, but I haven't met that person. I'm the only person here that's white collar," he said. "These people are here for murder, for bank robbery, for rape, for gun violations. It's just an amazing array of people. When I do contemplate that I'm here for allegations that people campaigned in the Capitol before 5 o'clock, it does cause me momentary reflection."

Of his current felonious friends he adds with a hearty laugh: "It's almost like the caucus. I love these characters. There's a lot of conviviality and good chemistry among the 100 men on my block."

DeWeese does have his escapes: softball, a TV with cable in his cell, and the gym.

"The dominant focus of my world is weightlifting." DeWeese says and flexes his bicep for proof. "At the age of 63, at least I've realized a brand new sense of my youthful muscularity."

DeWeese says he's allowed five visitors per month. His 93-year-old mother, Dotty, has made the six-hour trek to see him four times since his incarceration. They're bittersweet reunions.

"She cries for about 30 seconds and then we laugh and carry on for about three hours, but then she cries for another minute or two as I'm escorted back to the full-body cavity search to make sure nothing illicit was exchanged," he said.

DeWeese is appealing his conviction. He was recently rejected at the Superior Court level but promises to appeal to the Supreme Court. He thinks his trial was unfair and his sentence unduly long. But then he catches himself.

"Complaining seldom evokes pity," DeWeese said. "It mostly evokes contempt, so I don't complain."

It's hard for many to pity Bill DeWeese. As Democratic leader for nearly two decades, he was at times mean-spirited, tyrannical, petty and arrogant.

The stories are legendary in the Capitol and there are numerous examples:

- trying to have his lobbyist ex-wife, Holly Kinser, black-balled by Harrisburg lobbyists;

- stripping lawmakers who refused to vote for the ill-fated pay raise of their committee chairmanships; and

- reportedly directing state staffers to run personal errands like picking up his dry cleaning, even purchasing condoms.

A jury convicted him of using state-paid staff for campaign-related work.

On the one hand, no one's sleeping better because Bill DeWeese is behind bars. On the other, a message needs to be sent to politicians who abuse the system.

"If you believe the jury's verdict, public officials can't violate that trust without having some punishment," former Governor Ed Rendell said.

There are also former staffers and underlings who feel DeWeese threw them under the bus as Corbett's Bonusgate probe closed in to save his own skin. They are not sad to see him sitting in Retreat.

While DeWeese feels the specific charges that landed him in prison are either bogus or overblown, he does concede to me that perhaps karma caught up with him. He admits to doing things in his past, and in his relationships, that were unkind or wrong and perhaps they played a role in his current plight.

"The bowels of Hunlock Creek cannot be characterized as anything but a fall from grace," he said. "The stark reality of seven rows of razor wire evokes incontestable humility."

But DeWeese says he has learned much in his incarceration and he intends to use that knowledge to change the criminal justice system. He wants to be an advocate for inmates and travel the state speaking at colleges and universities about his experiences.

He says mandatory life sentences without any chance of parole are a bad idea. Judges, he says, need more leeway and inmates need a chance, even if it's remote, to earn their freedom.

But he's most passionate about the incarceration of low-threat, non-violent offenders. He thinks taxpayers will agree when they're told that they're spending $35,000 per prisoner, per year.

"We are just spending so much money that does not need to be spent keeping people behind razor wire when I think many of them could be on ankle bracelets," he said.

Ankle bracelets, DeWeese said, cost $3,500 per year to administer and would be just as effective for most drug offenders.

"Prisons in Pennsylvania are more and more a warehousing phenomenon and less and less a rehabilitative mission," he said.

Rendell is confident DeWeese will be successful upon release.

"He's done well, by all accounts, in prison and I think he's gonna do well afterwards because that optimism," he said. "That boundless energy he has I think will serve him well."

Corbett, who began the Capitol corruption probe as attorney general, was less effusive.

"He's there. He's serving time," Corbett said. "I'm sure that when he comes out he may have some thoughts about the prison system. I wish him well."

DeWeese does not share the same warm wishes for his governor, who he believes pursued politicians to further his own political ambitions.

He also thinks justice has been jaundiced by politics. Why, DeWeese wonders, is he behind bars while the wife of Corbett's budget secretary was given just probation after two DUI's, two retail thefts, and eluding state police?

Why, he also wonders, were House Democrats targeted for bonuses while Senate Republicans were not? DeWeese uses a baseball analogy: "If House Democrats were journeymen infielders, Senate Republicans were Babe Ruth."

But the three-and-a-half hours are up. We didn't get to all the items he wanted me to remind him about. He's led away. I'm escorted out.

As I pass back through the two gates protecting society from the inmates at Hunlock Creek, I'm reminded of a comment DeWeese made during his final speech on the House floor; probably more true now than when he uttered it in the ornate chamber: "I may not be as humble as I'd like to be. But I'm humbler now than I used to be."

Fellow lawmakers gave him a standing ovation.


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