Brian O'Neill: DeWeese sees corrections lacking in prison system

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Bill DeWeese, one of two Pennsylvania House speakers who went from the statehouse to the big house, is expected to be paroled from prison this morning after 221/2 months inside.

Time did not fly for the 63-year-old Democrat. His cellmate -- "celli'' in prison parlance -- was a 76-year-old child molester who spent most of his time in the fetal position facing the wall and had but five teeth, three up and two down.

"A toothbrush has never graced those five solitary teeth since I arrived,'' he told me once.

Yet when I visited him in prison five weeks ago, he was as upbeat as a Wal-Mart greeter. Everyone in the big visiting room -- guards and prisoners alike -- seemed happy to have him around. A convicted murderer smiled and said "Wild Bill'' when we approached the vending machines, and a man nicknamed "Six'' -- because he's 6-foot-6 -- laughed as they recalled how "Senator,'' as DeWeese is incorrectly known, once threatened to kick the man's tail if he didn't move.

"That was emblematic of the camaraderie that courses through the complex,'' DeWeese said.

Say what you will about this man who'd never use a single syllable if he could use five. Prison time only gave him more to talk about.

A jury in Dauphin County, which encompasses Harrisburg, convicted DeWeese in February 2012 of five felony corruption charges, having been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt he compelled his staffers to do campaign work on the state clock. He's still appealing that but realizes you "don't want to read about that stuff.'' (Meantime, the state has advanced to a point where surreptitious tapes of four Philadelphia legislators taking envelopes of money can't even lead to an indictment.)

DeWeese knows talking about that stuff won't help his cause any. He'd rather discuss what he calls a "learning experience of the first magnitude.'' He can make a prison stint sound like one of those Outward Bound survival courses for which the preppies pay top dollar.

"God has 'granted me the serenity,' " DeWeese says, paraphrasing the start of a prayer of acceptance. "She really has. I can't change seven rows of razor wire.''

He seems to have kept the three promises he made to a gaggle of media and their live cameras just before he went behind bars in May 2012: He'd follow the rules, get himself into "tip-top physical condition'' and make new friends. He lifted weights, played softball and reported walking as many as 49 laps on the quarter-mile track in a given day, despite being one of the oldest among the 1,100 inmates in the Luzerne County prison officially -- and somewhat comically -- known as Retreat.

This was no country club, unless there's one that keeps you locked in a cell 16 hours a day. He proclaimed himself the happiest guy there, though as a friend told him, that was a rather low bar to clear.

A guard was yelling in the background when we spoke on the phone Thursday morning, and he said his Marine days prepared him for this place filled with "noise, commotion, youth, athleticism and braggadocio.''

But by then, all that was between him and the bridge across the Susquehanna was "three and a wakeup." The phraseology, he explained, was a 40-year throwback to his days as a Marine waiting to return home from Okinawa.

He says he'd call the prison system "the Department of Warehousing,'' not Corrections, as he saw no effort toward rehabilitation, despite Jesus evidently being a convict there. ("Everybody who comes here, they find him,'' he once explained.)

He won't be allowed to write to any of the other cons, but says he'll miss some. He'll probably even miss some guards. One told me he had dubbed DeWeese "D-Leg'' (rhymes with "hedge'') after he heard the former legislator's hilariously ribald rap song about his prison predicament.

DeWeese hopes someone puts him on a public panel soon to share what he's learned, but for now he plans only to "head for the crimson ramparts of the Alleghenies.'' Then, he said, "I will make my way up Ohio River Boulevard to the warm embrace of the woman who brought me into this world'' -- his mother.

After her armful, she'll get an earful no doubt.

Brian O'Neill:boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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