The Data Gatekeeper Spinning Pennsylvania’s Prisons Narrative

November 16, 2021

In 2017, at the American Society of Criminology’s annual conference in Philadelphia, then-President James P. Lynch gave a speech about the importance of access to state prison data on a variety of measures, such as recidivism. When it comes to who gets the data, prison officials play favorites. Take the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC), Lynch said, where no one gets data—with rare exceptions, like Lynch’s University of Maryland colleague Kiminori Nakamura. 

“Kiminori gets it magically from Pennsylvania State,” he said, referring to the state’s prison system. “So I don’t know what happens there.” 

Watching from the audience, then-PA DOC Program Analyst J.Z.* had an idea of why: Kiminori Nakamura was friends with Dr. Kristofer “Bret” Bucklen, PA DOC’s director of the Bureau of Planning, Research and Statistics.

University professors and criminal justice personnel alike seem to consider Bucklen’s work at PA DOC legitimate and valuable. Online, he talks shop with many of America’s prominent criminal justice figures. He’s thought of as an advisor, a source of expert counsel to more influential parties—not as someone calling the shots himself.

Bucklen began his PA DOC career two decades ago as a research and evaluation analyst. In 2011, Franklin County Jail warden John Wetzel became PA DOC secretary and appointed Bucklen to his current role.

As director, Bucklen set about putting a positive public relations spin on the department’s work by partnering with various academic researchers to analyze its innovations. These included a new probation violation program relying on “swift, certain and fair” consequences, and a model of paying halfway-house contractors based on reductions in recidivism. (Prison agencies in other states usually only publish basic reports on demographic data.)

Wetzel, meanwhile, increased solitary confinement, banned books-to-prisoners programs and arbitrarily denied medical care in the decade he served as secretary, before stepping down in October.

And yet the college football player-turned-warden has been widely praised by liberals and conservatives alike as a poster child of data-driven corrections reform. How did this come to be his public image?

Wetzel has been open about his reliance on Bucklen. But the way J.Z. saw it during his time working there, Bucklen pushed out a similar narrative around Wetzel to that he’d done for PA DOC as a whole—and, in exchange, was given disproportionate influence over the department’s approach to rehabilitation.

“Bucklen seems to be in the business of saving money, cutting resources and maintaining control.”

When programs or research projects prioritized rehabilitation over incarceration, J.Z. told Filter, Bucklen put them on the fast track to nowhere. At PA DOC, “what Bucklen says is gospel.”

In 2015, Bucklen and Nakamura published a study examining new contracts between PA DOC and private-sector halfway houses paid using a “pay-for-performance” model. According to J.Z., Bucklen only allowed a select few friends or PA DOC staffers to view the halfway-house data. No one even in his own bureau had access besides him.

The study generated an “astonishing” outcome—according to Bucklen. Apparently, the department’s facilities cut recidivism at a rate nearly four times that of comparable state-owned facilities.

The study included the records of only a few hundred parolees (other similar studies have followed thousands) and its authors declined to publicize the dataset they said supported their conclusions. Nonetheless, the pay-for-performance model became the new norm for PA DOC contracting with private halfway houses going forward.

In 2017, PA DOC made a similar claim regarding its State Intermediate Punishment program—following participants for just one year when such studies would usually track them for at least five, praising the approach for how it reduced both crime and costs—without giving anyone a way to confirm the data. The program is still utilized at some PA DOC halfway houses today.

“Bucklen seems to be in the business of saving money, cutting resources and maintaining control, rather than wanting to help others and trying to understand their struggle,” J.Z said.

Neither Bucklen nor Wetzel replied to Filter’s requests for comment; PA DOC declined requests several times.

Bucklen’s grad school dissertation at the University of Maryland extolled the merits of jail time for trivial probation violations such as drug use, including alcohol. He has claimed alcohol should be illegal, endorsed “coerced abstinence” from substance use and dismissed the benefits of prisoners’ access to therapy because it’s “mostly too late.” He’s tweeted racist falsehoods including that crime is “genetic” and that Black people are incarcerated at disproportionate rates mostly because they commit disproportionate levels of crime.

“This opposition to mandatory minimums has nothing to do with rehabilitation or reform.

None of that stopped Fordham Law professor John Pfaff from thanking Bucklen by name in the acknowledgments section of his massively influential 2017 book Locked In, which critiques mass incarceration and blames prosecutors for ballooning prison rates. Or from reformers praising Bucklen for his opposition to mandatory minimum prison sentences.

“This opposition has nothing to do with rehabilitation or reform,” J.Z. told Filter. “It has to do with cost savings, as well as keeping population numbers down to look good in the media and create a legacy.”

When Wetzel defended Bucklen’s noxious social media presence, he cited Bucklen as “leading the fight against new mandatory minimums.”

J.Z., a counselor and mental health researcher with Master’s degrees in criminology and counseling psychology, began his criminal justice career in 2013 with a research job at the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. In 2017, PA DOC absorbed that Board, making Bucklen his new boss.

At the time of that transition, J.Z. had been engaged in a study on the perspectives of parole agents as well as people cited for parole violations. “[It] helps to tell the message behind the numbers,” he said.

When J.Z. came to PA DOC, Bucklen told him this sort of humanizing work was no longer a priority. The project was shelved.

J.Z. found Bucklen a demeaning bureau director who scared away talent and made ideological demands of his employees. He recalled Bucklen telling him that interviewing parole officers and parolees was a “waste of time,” that treatment programs “do not work” and that people involved with the justice system “just need to go to church to solve their problems.” J.Z. believes that he was cut from various projects because Bucklen found him “too biased toward treatment” over incarceration.

After 2018, when J.Z. promoted to Research and Evaluation Manager, part of his job was to chair the Research Review Committee (RRC). The RRC manages proposals from external researchers who want to collaborate with PA DOC. “I don’t know of any RRC project that evaluated any of our programs that we pay for, and most of the RRC projects are useless anyways,” Bucklen wrote to J.Z. and other staffers in a July 12, 2019, email. “I don’t see anything useful there.” 

A large portion of the proposals focused on the evaluation of rehabilitation programs. Though PA DOC’s website lists several of them as approved, they have not actually been enacted.

“If you control the data, you control the message.”

J.Z. also saw firsthand how Bucklen controlled the narrative, and seemingly the facts themselves—anyone who wanted the data had to request it through Bucklen directly. Nor were employees allowed to send any data to parole agencies without Bucklen’s approval. He controlled all prison data going in and going out.

“If you control the data, you control the message,” J.Z. said.

Staffers who challenged this lack of transparency, J.Z. alleged, were cut out of projects and belittled. Over Bucklen’s decade-long tenure, at least seven employees transferred off his team or left PA DOC altogether.

“Never have I witnessed so many good people underutilized and underappreciated in a workplace,” J.Z. said. “It is truly sad.” Earlier this year, he became the eighth to go.

Bucklen’s spin on PA DOC as reform-driven allowed Wetzel to obtain speaking arrangements alongside members of Congress, NFL players and top Google employees. The Vera Institute for Justice even sent him on an expenses-paid trip to Norway to survey its more “dignified” prisons, which later inspired Wetzel to make a “Little Scandinavia” unit at SCI Chester, a medium-security prison in Philadelphia.

Wetzel is no longer at PA DOC. Perhaps Bucklen’s influence will diminish without Wetzel there to ensure it. But the position of acting secretary has been taken up by George Little, PA DOC’s former deputy secretary of Community Corrections and Reentry. Little previously oversaw the embattled Memphis Police Department, where among other endeavors he fought to strip promotions from Black police officers, based on an inaccurate understanding of a federal appeals court opinion.

 


 

Photograph via United States Department of Justice

*Name withheld to protect the source at his request.

Rory Fleming

Rory is a writer and licensed attorney. Previously, he ran Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors, and worked for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project and the National Network for Safe Communications at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He lives in Philadelphia.

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