Pennsylvania has a distinguished reputation in penology. The commonwealth was the birthplace of the penitentiary concept, also known as the Pennsylvania System. Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, on a cherry orchard outside of Philadelphia, and it was considered at the time to be “the world's greatest penitentiary.” Known to historians as "the first true penitentiary," Eastern State operated until 1970.
The Bureau of Correction was created by an act of Legislature in September 1953. The foundation was based on a report by Retired Army Major General Jacob L. Devers and his special committee to investigate prison problems. The committee was convened shortly after riots at Pittsburgh and Rockview early in 1953. It was the committee's mission to recommend ways to improve the correctional system and reduce unrest. Up to this point the state’s prisons fell under the Department of Welfare. Here they were governed by their own boards of trustees. The Devers Committee suggested the establishment of one agency, whose sole purpose was to manage the state prison system. Appointed by Gov. John S. Fine, Arthur T. Prasse was selected as the first commissioner of corrections, where he remained until 1970.
In 1980, the Bureau of Correction changed hands from the former Pennsylvania Department of Justice, to the newly created Office of General Counsel to the Governor. Constitutional changes resulted in an elected state attorney general, and the disbanding of the Justice Department.
In 1984, under Act 245, the Bureau of Correction was elevated to cabinet-level status, making it the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Under Secretary John E. Wetzel, the department -- with a Fiscal Year 2017-2018 budget of $2.5 billion -- oversees 24 state correctional institutions, one motivational boot camp, 14 community corrections centers, approximately 50 contract facilities, a training academy, 15,000 employees and nearly 50,000 inmates.
Major initiatives of this administration have been:
- To reform the system and reduce the inmate population through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which was begun in 2012 and continues today. The goal of JRI is to change the system for the better and to reinvest any monetary savings back into the community to provide community-based services to prevent crime. System changes, along with preventive community measures, should result, in time, in the reduction of the state prison population without jeopardizing public safety.
- To enhance and improve the mental health services provided to inmates. 24 percent of the inmate population requires some sort of mental health monitoring and or services. Eight percent of the population is seriously mentally ill.
- To reduce future crime and recidivism by providing inmates with tools and skills necessary for them to reenter society successfully and to not commit new crimes nor interact negatively with the criminal justice field, either through rearrest or reincarceration.
- To reduce the use of administrative segregation of inmates while reducing prison violence at the same time.
On October 19, 2017, Governor Tom Wolf announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, resulting in the combination of the agencies’ similar, shared and overlapping resources and functions, while keeping both agencies separate. However, the community supervision of parolees and all other reentry services are now combined under a new, centralized chain of command that everyone in those areas will report to and follow.
The consolidation is a part of Governor Wolf’s plan to eliminate bureaucratic redundancies while still allowing the agencies to serve their individual missions. By combining similar reentry and parole supervision duties and responsibilities, officials now can fine-tune and focus their efforts as they relate to reentry. This move, while saving taxpayer dollars, also allows for better and more timely record-sharing, allows for consistent delivery of reentry programming, better employee communications and training and better transition via a smooth handoff to community parole agents and supervisors.
The MOU is expected to save a considerable amount of money and resources for each agency. The Parole Board itself, the Sexual Offender Assessment Board and the Office of Victim Advocate will continue to operate independently of the consolidated agencies.