"I am Finally Free!"

02/11/2014
(MCT)
Feb. 11--Working for 33 years as Berks County Prison warden was like living in a pressure cooker that George A. Wagner just couldn't take anymore.
Wagner said he didn't realize how bad it was getting until he abruptly decided to retire Jan. 31.
"I am finally free," the 62-year-old Wagner said, relaxing in a sunny room in his home, known as Heister's Mansion, on the prison property. "I can finally get a good night's sleep."
Wagner hopes to find work in a more positive environment, but said he is not sure what he will do.
"I just want to relax," the former warden said. "I may travel with my wife."
Wagner started as a corrections officer in 1974, and was promoted to warden just seven years later.
Reflecting on 40 years at the prison, he concluded that his life was unconventional and stressful.
"What do you think it was like for my two sons growing up at a prison?" he said. "They played with inmates. It was not a normal life. We're living in the country, and no one else is around but inmates."
When Wagner was promoted to warden in 1981, he was required to live in the Berks County-owned mansion on prison property because the warden was on call 24 hours and the technology was not what it is today.
"If I wasn't named warden so long ago when I was only 28 years old, maybe I would not be so tired of it," he said. "You fool yourself to think you can keep on going, but you just can't anymore."
Wagner said he didn't want to stay in a job when his heart was no longer into it. That's why he retired without giving the county prison board more notice, he said.
"It was just time to move on," Wagner explained. "That's me. I didn't want to continue to work making major decisions when I knew I was leaving."
Change behind the walls
Thirty-three years, Wagner said, is a long time to work as a warden in a prison that has grown from a daily population of about 175 inmates when he started in 1974 at the prison to about 1,200 today. At its peak in the late 1990s, the prison housed 1,350.
Wagner recalled that he was hired after an internship his senior year at Penn State.
Former Warden Walter Scheipe remembered hiring Wagner.
"He had long, blond hair, Scheipe recalled. "I told him I would hire him if he cut his hair. He cut his hair and we hired him."
Scheipe understands the stress the job can create.
"I talked to him recently and I could hear in his voice the relief," Scheipe said of Wagner, whom he described as an outstanding warden.
"He has the utmost respect from wardens throughout the state," Scheipe said.
Wagner enjoyed working on expansion and other prison projects, but said the day-to-day grind was too negative.
He recalled that in the 1970s there were a handful of violent motorcycle gang members from the Pagans locked up for selling methamphetamine.
Today, however, the prison is filled with street gang members and other violent offenders, as well as state parole violators.
"It was so stressful," he said. "I get up every day and make dozens of tough decisions about people's lives. I answer hundreds of grievances from inmates. People are not happy about anything here."
Prison boss and mentor
Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel recalled that Wagner served as his mentor when Wetzel worked at the Berks prison from 1992 to 2002.
Wetzel started as an officer and was promoted to treatment counselor, then to director of treatment and training.
"George had such an impact on the field of corrections, both from a policy standpoint and for those he's mentored and guided," Wetzel said. "Along with his legacy, he leaves behind a footprint that will be hard to fill."
Janine L. Quigley, chief deputy warden who worked for Wagner since December 1986, thanked him for the opportunities he gave her to grow professionally.
"As I reflect upon these past 27 years, I am most grateful for being able to work for a leader who embraced positive change, progressive thinking and perseverance in an environment that inherently presents daily challenges," Quigley said. "His willingness to publicly state that he has reached a point where he is tired speaks volumes to those who have never worked behind the razor ribbon.
"Those who spend their careers working in corrections face many trials and stressors that often go unnoticed."
Quigley hopes that Wagner's service to the Berks community is appreciated and that the transition brings a renewed appreciation for staff members who put their lives at risk walking the concrete halls.
"May he be blessed with a wonderful, well-deserved retirement," she said.
County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, prison board chairman for the last six years, said his interest in the prison was piqued by Wagner's knowledge.
"He taught me a lot about incarceration and reentry to the community," Barnhardt said. "His legacy is that he led us into a new way of thinking.
"He did not want to lock up people and throw away the key."
Barnhardt commended Wagner for pressing the county to open the Berks County Reentry Center in May 2010 to help inmates get jobs and transition back into the community.
"He was a progressive-thinking warden," Barnhardt said.
Contact Holly Herman: 610-478-6291 or hherman@readingeagle.com.
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