A day in the life: Graterford prison superintendent offers rare view inside prison, personal life

Superintendent Michael Wenerowicz stands at Graterford State Prison in Skippack Township.
Superintendent Michael Wenerowicz stands at Graterford State Prison in Skippack Township. Geoff Patton — DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA
Eastern State Penitentiary inmates helped build Graterford in the 1920s. As the prisoners completed the cell blocks, they were sequentially placed inside, according to Graterford’s facility narrative.
Eastern State Penitentiary inmates helped build Graterford in the 1920s. As the prisoners completed the cell blocks, they were sequentially placed inside, according to Graterford’s facility narrative. Meghan Ross — DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA

By the numbers

$400 million

Approximate price of Phoenix, the new prison that will replace Graterford

$300,000

Approximate cost of the Graterford property in the 1920s

9.4 months

Average length of stay at Graterford, besides those serving life sentences and those sentenced to execution

1,714

Acreage of the Graterford property

7

Number of times inmates are locked in for “count” each day

1,094

Number of full-time staff

6,700

Average pounds of laundry washed per day

17 to 87

Age range of inmates

4,019

Inmate population

2

Number of times an inmate can flush his toilet in a 30-second-length period at Phoenix. After more than two flushes, his water will be turned off for two hours.

SKIPPACK >> Skippack Township hosts quaint shops, a community pool, a branch of the bucolic Perkiomen Trail and also about 4,000 convicted criminals.

At night, the lights of Graterford prison illuminate the sky like a huge sports stadium. But instead, a 34-foot wall, constructed by former inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1920s, encloses the state’s largest maximum security population of prisoners. In charge of all of these men is Michael Wenerowicz, the superintendent.

One rainy October morning, Wenerowicz took a turn off Route 73 and drove past the construction site for Phoenix — the $400 million replacement prison for Graterford — toward the looming prison walls and his administration building.

On the docket that morning was a staff meeting where he was briefed on everything from buttons on the inmates’ winter coats, to overtime pay, religious holidays coming up and the flu vaccine.

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Training cadets

Armed with a bottle of water, Wenerowicz headed into another meeting with Deputy Superintendent of Internal Security George Ondrejka to brief new cadets about what they can expect within the walls of Graterford.

Don’t abuse your power (e.g., don’t deny an inmate food) and be aware that the stress of the job causes high rates of alcoholism and divorce among officers, they cautioned.

“It’s a tough place to work, but if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere in the state,” Wenerowicz told them.

One of the most common places to find shanks, or makeshift knives, is in staff offices or other places where the weapon couldn’t easily be tied to a certain person (mop closets, radiators, carts of laundry or the trash).

Then there’s the drug problems inside — one particularly nasty one being K2, a synthetic marijuana that is tricky for the staff because the drug can’t always be detected in urine samples. Wenerowicz, who has dogs perform air scans of the visitors’ parking lot, said they discover drugs once or twice a week in visitors’ cars.

It’s a tough environment, especially for lifers who’ve lost hope of appealing their sentences. Graterford’s facility narrative summary from 2013 listed seven offender suicide attempts and two actual suicides in a 12-month span at the prison.

“Implementations of escape,” such as bed sheets torn up to make a rope, have been discovered, but no one has made a run at the wall so far in the near five years since Wenerowicz has become superintendent.

One of the officers’ biggest challenges at Graterford? Complacency. For example, an inmate at another prison managed to escape momentarily by hiding in a type of barrel in the kitchen. The guard didn’t use a heartbeat monitor and didn’t check his truck when the barrel was loaded in. When the inmate was captured, he said he had been watching the officer and noticed he wasn’t following all the protocols.

“There’s policy and procedure for everything,” Wenerowicz reminded the new officers.

This was one of many mantras inculcated into the cadets’ minds that day. He and Ondrejka offered a few other aphorisms for the cadets to remember.

“Don’t be a cowboy.”

“Live to fight another day.”

“There are no secrets in jail.”

Fraternization between staff and inmates can be a major issue, Ondrejka said, recalling one particular Graterford inmate who became friendly with a officer (the prison calls this “grooming”). The officer tried to smuggle in steak and potatoes for him by strapping the food to her body, but when she walked through the metal detector, the aluminum foil around the potato set off an alarm. The officer quickly sent in her resignation after that.

Ondrejka’s message: You can be friendly, but you can’t be friends.

“It’s a challenging but rewarding career,” Ondrejka added. “You have to have a sense of humor.”

Sometimes even toilet humor. One time, an inmate stuck his hand so far down a toilet that he got stuck, and the prison had to get the Jaws of Life to extricate him.

Making rounds

Next, Wenerowicz headed out to the blocks to make rounds. But first, he had his fingerprint scanned using biometric technology. This way, there’s a log of staff coming in and out of the blocks. He also had to remove his belt as he stepped through the metal detectors.

He visited a block filled with inmates undergoing a rehab program called FreshStart120. Hand-drawn signs commemorated friends and family members who lost their lives to addiction.

At the hospice center, a lifer named Paul suffering from cancer stopped to tell the superintendent about fluid entering his lungs. He’s recuperating, but he was worried someone else would be placed in his cell, which he’s lived in for 20 years. Wenerowicz assured him he could keep his cell and kept moving, as if setting an internal timer to keep his conversations as efficient as possible.

Wenerowicz headed to one of the larger blocks, two football field-lengths across and divided by a control center for the officers. The block, smelling like an odd mixture of Pine-Sol and tobacco, was full of ambling inmates slowly heading to their cells for count. The inmates, usually two per cell, would stand by the window of the 1929-era cell where their photo and identity is listed, so the officers can check them. Inside the cells are a toilet and urinal, two beds and sometimes a small TV, which the inmates must pay for, plus the cable.

Phoenix

Some of the inmates think the move to the new prison, Phoenix, will never happen, Wenerowicz said. It’s been eight years since the plans were initially approved by former Gov. Ed Rendell. When Gov. Tom Corbett was elected, his administration also wanted to take a look at the plans, which meant construction was stalled.

Managing Graterford while also tracking Phoenix developments is Wenerowicz’s biggest headache these days. But the largest prison project in the state is about 60 percent done, he said. One of the biggest transitions will be adding 200 female offenders from SCI-Muncy in Lycoming County to the equation. Another big difference will be Phoenix’s anti-tobacco policy, which will be tough for both the inmates and staff, Wenerowicz said.

At Phoenix, guards’ IDs will get them in the door and then act as a GPS tracking tool. There will also be leg cutouts so an inmate can be shackled if necessary before he comes out of the cell.

With an increased line of sight in the new facility, plus increased security measures, Phoenix won’t need as many officers, though Wenerowicz said no one would lose his or her job; it will all be done through attrition.

The new prison will also have air conditioning, which will benefit inmates battling mental health problems, he said.

“Sometimes people get upset — why do the inmates need air conditioning? — and I say, listen, they’re on psychotropic medications. Some of our blocks get up to 100 degrees, and that affects guys with mental health issues,” Wenerowicz said.

Helping inmates

After rounds, Wenerowicz headed to the staff cafeteria, where he eats a couple of times a week. He takes carrots, a hamburger minus a bun and a grilled cheese from the inmates working in the kitchen.

Wenerowicz, from the Spring-Ford area, said nothing surprises him after his four-and-a-half years as superintendent. But one moment that stuck with him was seeing an inmate who was handicapped re-enter society after serving his sentence. His family came to pick him up, and 30 minutes later they dropped him off at the doorstep and said, “Here, you take him.” He said he sees some guys leave Graterford with no game plan for how they’re going to transition to civilian life.

The superintendent said he tries to give his inmates opportunities to become better citizens. He’d categorize the majority of them as inherently good people who made terrible mistakes.

“I don’t want to be labeled as a warden who comes in and just does his job,” he said. “I’m looking to do more than just the job. What more can I do to improve?”

One thing he’s big on is programming, like the prison’s Mural Arts partnership, in which inmates paint murals that are assembled in Philadelphia. The prison also held a TEDx event at Graterford recently. Inmates submitted essays, and about seven of them were chosen to speak at the event.

A 61-year-old man named Craig was one of those chosen. During his TEDx talk, he spoke about his experience meeting the sister of the man he killed about 30 years ago.

“It gave me a sense of self worth,” Craig said of the TEDx experience. “It brought hope to this institution. … It exceeded my expectations.”

In his nearly five years as the superintendent, Wenerowicz has issued about five commutations, or a recommendation that an inmate have his sentence reduced. Craig, a “lifer,” was one of these recommendations, but he remains in jail.

Inside, Craig has some goals for himself; he’d like to stay positive and help others feel fulfilled. He works as a bookkeeper in prison — a job he said improves his quality of life behind bars. What he misses most about the outside, he said, are freedom from the physical restriction of a 6-by-12-foot cell, seeing his family and attending big life events like births and funerals. Craig has grandchildren he’s never met. He hopes to make it out of prison before his mother passes away.

“All you have is hope,” Craig said and paused, taking a minute to collect himself. “Once you lose hope, you don’t have much at all.”

Those who leave

In addition to programming like the TEDx talk, the superintendent is quick to point out charity work the staff is involved in, such as their State Employee Combined Appeal Award for donating more than $40,000 to various causes. The staff has also donated firewood to provide heat for the homeless population and made donations to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The prison also houses older horses that were abandoned or scheduled to be euthanized, and some staff members have adopted dogs out of the New Leash on Life program.

In the Outside Service Unit, where inmates close to “maxing out” or being released reside, Marvin takes care of one of the dogs in this New Leash on Life program. Marvin and a few other inmates are in charge of dogs that would have otherwise been euthanized at high-kill shelters. Trainers and veterinarians make regular visits, and the inmates are taught how to care for the dogs and teach them how to be obedient. After 90 days in the program, the dogs can graduate and be adopted.

Marvin is in charge of Boomer, a 4-year-old Australian Shepherd that the Department of Corrections adopted.

“She’s a DOC dog,” Marvin said proudly, patting her speckled head.

The dog’s name is short for Boomerang — chosen because the inmates decided to name all the dogs with an Australian theme. Last time around, they were given Disney characters’ names, said Marvin, who plans to work for New Leash on Life when he’s released.

The superintendent’s interest in dogs stemmed from a severe goose problem on the prison’s grounds. Wenerowicz guesses he spent thousands of dollars with various methods to get rid of the geese. Now, Boomer is released onto the grounds and chases the birds away. Only a handful remain on the property.

In a quiet moment as Wenerowicz drove from the Outside Service Unit back toward the walls of the prison and his office at the end of a long day, he wondered aloud why anyone would be interested in him.

In two hours’ time, the father of two would pack up his belongings, head out of the office and make the great escape so many of his men behind bars would envy — to be back home with his family.