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What I learned from the men of B-Block – and about myself: H. William DeWeese

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Author: USALA /Monday, June 17, 2019

For more than three decades Bill DeWeese was one of Pennsylvania’s most powerful politicians. He served as the 135th Speaker of the Pennsylvania House from 1993-94.  DeWeese was among the Capitol’s most colorful characters and power brokers until his high-flying career came crashing down when he was sentenced to 30 to 60 months in state prison on six counts of conflict of interest, theft and criminal conspiracy.

DeWeese said he spent his days at SCI Retreat a medium-security prison watching C-Span, writing letters, lifting weights, chatting with a steady stream of visitors – some of them sitting lawmakers. When the weather was good, he “walked the yard,” as he likes to say, below Homicide Hill, so named for the convicted murderers who gather there.

DeWeese was the only recently convicted politician sent to a medium-security prison, one with murderers, rapists, and child molesters, like his 74-year-old cellmate. He said his Marine Corps service 40 years ago helped steel him for life on the cell block – the yelling, the lineups. “It’s not as intense as the Marine Corps.”  His best friend on B block, he, said was a Muslim from Philadelphia, Kevin “Amir” Bowman, a former gang leader convicted in a notorious drug-related murder in 1990, who he said taught him the finer points of weightlifting.

“The pathway during his time in prison was of immeasurable growth and education and appreciation for a lot of folks who I wouldn’t have come in contact with,”  DeWeese said. He’d like to share his experience, find ways to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail, and make life more humane for those who do end up behind bars.

After his release in 2014, DeWeese is currently involved in prison reform, an effort DeWeese, said could be aided by other lawmakers and staffers who have served time. “If all of us put our heads together, we could save the state a lot of money.”  

Enunciated below is a letter written by William DeWeese prior to his release from prison in 2014.  

The State Correctional Facility at Hunlock Creek, Pa. – It’s nearly 4 a.m., and I’m writing this just hours before the sun breaks through the bars of my 12′ x 8′ cell on the last day of my nearly 23 months in prison.

As usual, the faint drumbeat of rap music from a neighboring “hut” brings to mind my very first minutes on B-Block.

That day the prison bus with the cage in the middle was just completing the work of transferring 11 of us from Camp Hill Prison to a medium-security stockade on Hunlock Creek.

Armed guards with shotguns, an imposing perimeter of high fencing, seven rows of razor wire and bright orange jump suits were the props and backdrop for opening day.

With wrists and ankles cuffed, and bound to the body by a chain, each of us was entering the wild world of one of Pennsylvania’s aging, overbooked medium-security prisons.

This was the real deal. There was no turning back.

Roughly a half-hour later, I arrived on B-Block and a heavy steel door rolled shut behind me. A young fellow on the second tier yelled, “Hey, mother (expletive) we got the ‘Senator’ on B-Block!”

My one-man welcoming committee had just been posted to Hunlock Creek a few days earlier by happy accident. He had been at Camp Hill with me on J-Block when I shared a cell with my former colleague, John Perzel, the first of many ironies.

Here on B-Block, I’m an older (much older) Caucasian character from the Capitol preparing to launch out on the next 22 months of life with 108 convicts on B-Block.

Twenty-two months later, I’m about to begin the exit protocols after first count is concluded at 6:30 a.m., but I just can’t sleep.

The names, faces and experiences of this hard, but remarkable personal journey are racing through my mind.

A Philip Roth quote I committed to memory defines this moment when he wrote, “For the pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence!” He’s got it just about right.

B-Block at Hunlock Creek, like all the B-Blocks in all the “joints” in the world, is nasty. The dust, spit, grit, mice and cockroaches can never be forgotten.

Some of my fellow inmates were serving life for murder, while others had lighter sentences for crimes like rape, aggravated assault, drug dealing and gun running.

I’ve always pictured B-Block like a French Foreign Legion outpost in North Africa — career criminals, multiple offenders, low-level drug crimes, one-time bank robbers and stone-cold killers shoehorned into a single barracks.

I should also add that the muscularity and athleticism of so many of these young inmates remind me of an NFL locker room.

I’m convinced that so many of their stories might have played out differently if they had not fallen under the weight of unrelenting adolescent pressures on street corners like 20th and Carpenter of 52nd and Lancaster.

Tragedy inside, and most certainly outside, the walls of B-Block abounds.

So that first day in June 2012, these young men of B-Block, mostly from Philadelphia and many of them Muslims, embraced this somewhat old coot from far away Greene County.

We walked the 440 track in the “yard” endlessly in the spring and summer. During the autumn months, we often ran the track. For the few hours outside the four walls of my cell, fresh air was a cherished luxury.

The outdoor weight pit was the size of a grass diamond at a big league park and it was our home if we were not running, playing softball or volleyball or shooting baskets. The sense of fraternity we engendered was warm and profound.

Many of these men committed violent murders 20 or 30 years ago and were serving life sentences. They had been model inmates in level 4 maximum security lock-ups and after a decade or two had been given a “promotional” transfer to the “hoosegow” along the Hunlock.

It was amazing, but for some of these guys, had you not known they were in prison for homicide, you would assume they were in jail for their 3rd DUI. In the corrections system, good behavior has some privileges, like outdoor exercise.

For 687 days and the 2,061 meals, I learned something new about the lives of these men in brown scrubs. I made the point to always walk to meals with a different guy and eat with any set of random fellows next to me in line.

They told me about life in the hood around Broad & Dauphin streets and described the bloody gang shootouts in the “Badlands” of the Kensington section of Philly between Allegheny & Lehigh streets.

n the 11 minutes allotted to gulp down a perpetual river of other worldly prison “nourishment,” I learned so much about the world of drugs, and gangs.

During thousands of powerfully raw conversations, I became deeply aware that my blessed, relatively joyful life of opportunity was not the norm for most them — far from it.

The premier lesson of my journey in the “jug” is the societal indifference to this massive lockup. Of approximately 1,200 men warehoused in the camp at any given moment, between 800 to 900 men are African-American or Hispanic – a startling estimate.

Many years ago when I visited former state representative Frank Gigliotti in federal prison in West Virginia, I went with him to the chow hall.

Of the hundreds of federal, low level, white collar offenders, there appeared to be no racial differentiation relative to national population demographics.

Granted, it was a white-collar jail, but they didn’t even have a fence. But here on Hunlock Creek, we have 1,200 non-white-collar inmates, and they are overwhelmingly black and brown.

The percentages are wildly out of line with Pennsylvania’s population breakdown, and there’s a growing consensus that there is something profoundly broken about our system.

On Martin Luther King Day and throughout February — Black History Month — each year, I would talk to guys in the dayroom or the yard about Black History from the first slave ships in Jamestown, Virginia, to Harriet Tubman and the fire breathing Fredrick Douglas of Civil War era fame.

From Jackie Robinson to MLK, to President Obama, I was able to provide these young guys with hopeful biographies and perhaps some unread chapters from the pages of their cultural heritage.

Predictably, with a resident politician on the block, many of them wanted to know about Harrisburg and how the laws of a state are made.

From Mohammed to Shareef, from “Pretty Ricky” to “Dice” and “G-BALL” and Amir and Khaleef, I was able to spend an unforgettable two years of my life learning and, I hope, returning the favor. My education in prison was truly an exchange.

All in all, I’ve been blessed by this experience. There’s no other way to describe it. Family and friends and robust good health were a fountain of strength, but the men of B-Block provided the rest. This was more than survival.

I lived among them for what was the equivalent of 7-1/2 Marine boot camps. These nearly 23 months of dank, depressing physical surroundings were combated by daily human interaction to keep moving forward.

Even though I energetically protested the road that led me here, and had hoped to skip this experience altogether, I am grateful for this immeasurably important detour. The men of B-Block will linger in my memory for the rest of my days.