From Private Plane To Prison Cell For Pa. Lawmaker
SOMERSET, Pa. (AP) – As a powerful state representative, Mike Veon for years was perfectly coiffed, wore $1,000 custom-made pin-striped suits, smoked expensive cigars and sipped Makers Mark bourbon with lobbyists. He zipped around on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, attended conferences in Las Vegas and flew back and forth to Harrisburg in a state plane.
He dispatched a legislative staffer to retrieve his dry cleaning, arranged for his clothes to be tailored every time he lost or gained a few pounds and never wore the same tie twice on days the Legislature was in session.
Times have changed.
These days, the former House Democratic whip wears a brown Department of Corrections uniform, gets monthly haircuts from the prison barbershop and shaves with a 95-cent disposable razor bought from a prison commissary.
His leisurely dinners have been replaced by food mixed in huge vats and served on trays passed through a slot in a Plexiglass wall that runs between the kitchen and prison dining room. Inmates file in and sit four to a table. Talking is allowed, but there is little of it because inmates scarf down food in the precious few minutes allotted to eat. Meals lately have included hot dogs, braised chicken, baked beans, roasted potatoes and watermelon.
Veon, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed, has been sentenced to spend the next six to 14 years in the minimumsecurity State Correctional Institution Laurel Highlands in rural Somerset County.
There is no shortage of locked doors or razor-wire fences here, but as far as prisons go, SCI Laurel Highlands isn’t too bad, inmates and corrections officers said during a recent tour of the grounds.
“We say it’s a good place to be if you have to be in prison, but prison is never a good place to be,’’ said Laurel Highlands spokeswoman Betsy Nightingale.
For most inmates, the hardest part is being away from family, said corrections officer David Shaffer.
Inmates are allowed eight visits a month and two 15-minute phone calls a day. Up to five people can come for each visit. If other inmates’ visitors aren’t waiting for chairs, they can linger with their guests for hours, holding hands across a table, snacking on vendingmachine fare or taking photographs together in an arcade style booth.
Veon was sent to SCI Laurel Highlands in July after his conviction in a government corruption probe that centered on a scheme to distribute $1.9 million worth of publicly funded bonuses to staffers who worked on political campaigns.
Testimony that emerged during the seven-week criminal trial painted a picture of a lavish lifestyle supported by public resources used for personal and political tasks. State employees had Veon’s cowboy boots shined, planned his political fundraising events, ordered and picked up dinner for him and drove cross-country to deliver motorcycles so the lawmaker and his wife, Stefanie, could attend a rally in South Dakota.
During a recent tour of the grounds, prison officials first refused to show its cells, but eventually relented, providing access to an empty, unused cell block with dormitory style accommodations. Asked repeatedly, prison officials said all blocks were identical – large, noisy, open rooms with cramped windowless “cells’’ separated by chest-high walls resembling office cubicle partitions.
However, Veon’s assignment is much different than the dormitory-style housing where most inmates are assigned four or eight to a cell, sleeping just inches away from their neighbors with no wall between them. Here there is no privacy, no way to escape the noise that grows particularly intense during football season when inmates shout at cable TV sports programs.
Veon, also known as Inmate No. JP4714, is assigned to the more private Block H.
Opened a year ago, Block H has concrete floors, traditional style cells with metal doors that lock, and a day room that resembles an airport terminal, with rows of blue plastic chairs. Each cell has a set of metal bunk beds, two stools, a toilet, a stainless steel table attached to the wall and a tall, narrow window.
Doors here are seldom locked during the day, leaving inmates free to visit the prison yard, the day room or the showers at will.
“It’s a piece of cake here, really,’’ said officer Shaffer, who has been to other state prisons as part of teams that search cells for drugs, weapons and other contraband. “For the most part, these guys like it up here.’’
Still, the cells are cramped, the doors are locked at night and inmates are required to sit – not wander – in the day room, where they play games such as Monopoly or Parcheesi. Beds are made of sheet metal and topped with 4-inch-thick, plastic-covered mattresses that provide little cushioning.
Typically, Block H is for offenders who need more supervision, prison officials said, and not for white-collar criminals who follow the rules. They declined to say whether Veon has a cellmate or how his housing assignment was determined.
One ex-convict, Richard Garland, who has served time in three other Pennsylvania state prisons, said traditional cell blocks, like the one Veon is in, are preferable to the dormitory-style blocks where most Laurel Highlands inmates are assigned.
“In dormitory life, you got all these people around you. You can learn to live that way, but if I’m in jail, do I want to be in a dorm? No,’’ said Garland who now heads the Allegheny County anti-violence initiative One Vision One Life.
There’s no privacy in the dormitories, and inmates have to worry about being harassed, attacked or robbed by dozens of other prisoners, he said. In a cell, they have to worry about getting along with only one other inmate.
Garland said it may appear that Veon is getting special treatment because of his assignment, but in jail there is no such thing.
“They’re going to treat him like everybody else. He’s kind of like a celebrity but they ain’t going to treat him like a celebrity,’’ he said. “In fact, it’s going to be harder for him than everyday inmates. He’s going to be a target. The inmates in there think he got a whole bunch of money, and they’re going to try to extort him.’’
He said the best way a new inmate can avoid trouble is to fill his days with school, work or group counseling sessions.
Veon’s job as a prison tutor is a good one, Garland said.
“People respect you when you’re teaching them something,’’ he said. “A lot of guys don’t know how to read and write. He’ll help them write letters or maybe do legal research.’’
Veon’s job pays 42 cents an hour – a sharp contrast to his former six-figure legislative salary. Still it’s near the top of the pay scale for inmates, who earn as little as 19 cents an hour for more menial work picking up cigarette butts, serving meals, mopping floors and pushing wheelchairs in the facility’s medical wing, which looks much more like a hospital than a jail.
Inmates use their earnings – along with money deposited into their accounts by friends and family – to buy food, tobacco products and toiletries from the prison commissary that they order one week and pick up the next. They can buy $65 per week worth of such items as Ramen noodles, peanut butter, instant coffee, shampoo and shaving cream.
In addition, they can buy white T-shirts, work boots, sneakers, cassette tape players and other items. A 19- inch flat-screen television, for example, costs $227. The commissary’s limited stogie selection includes Swisher Sweets, Phillies and Black & Mild sold in five packs for about $3 – much less than the pricey Arturo Fuente cigars Veon often puffed during late-night work sessions at the Capitol while he sipped bourbon out of a glass engraved with his initials.
Veon’s defense attorney, Dan Raynak of Arizona, declined to comment on how his client spends his days.
“We talk about that but it’s more as friends, so I don’t know if I can divulge that,’’ Raynak said.
Inmates do not have Internet access, but can use the prison’s legal research area, where court opinions are downloaded for inmates’ use. Typewriters also are provided.
Inmates also can attend religious services in the prison chapel; lift weights, play handball, walk on the track or play chess in the yard; work out on weight machines and stationary bicycles in the gym; sign up for a rubber horseshoe tournament or play bocce.
On warm days, they can buy ice cream from the Inmate Betterment Organization, a group of inmates that raises money to buy things such as a sound system that’s used by an announcer during basketball games held in the gymnasium.
They can even play in baseball tournaments with church groups that visit. (The bats are tethered by a 20-foot cable, which makes them difficult to swing but also provides a measure of safety for players and spectators.)
Overall, they have a lot of things to do. They go to jobs, they work out, they go to the gym. This is their house. This is it, some of them have life sentences, and this is as good as it’s gonna get for them.