John Wetzel has worked in corrections for over 30 years, but he is sure not to take himself too seriously. Starting as a part-time correctional officer when he was in college, Wetzel has worked up through the ranks and has been Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections since 2011.
His many years in corrections have taught him the value of surrounding yourself with good people, the great human capacity for change and the importance of breaking generational trauma. “I think corrections has a really unique opportunity to really help people change their lives,” he says. “And when we do that, we also change the lives of their family members.”
Wetzel understands that it takes a lot of hard work and determination to bring about change in communities, so that is why he trusts his staff to be creative: “The closer people are to the ground, the better their information as to how to operationalize things are. So, lean on that and use that.” This creativity has allowed the staff to adapt quickly when guidelines were administered to prevent the spread of COVID-19, swapping in-person visits for Zoom visits for the incarcerated individuals.
Wetzel also keeps detailed spreadsheets to track data and figures that help analyze and improve the system. And when that is not enough, he uses his passion and strength to persevere. “It continues to be, certainly, a challenging environment, but an environment that gives us an opportunity to just reimagine how we deliver the services we deliver,” he points out.
During this time of national protesting against policing and violence against Black Americans, Wetzel is even more inspired to use his role to create positive change. “As a Black man who runs a big criminal justice system, I have a foot in a bunch of these camps. So, this is a very personal issue for me.”
Listen to “In the Arena” with John Wetzel to learn more about criminal justice reform, his focus on doing the next right thing and his in-depth knowledge of Columbo.
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