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Prison sweet home


February 19. 2013 8:07PM
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After playing outside as a child in the 1930s, Doris Perschau had to summon a guard to unlock the front gate and let her back inside her Wilkes-Barre home.


Strict security measures were necessary because her family lived in a building where some of the inhabitants were forbidden to leave: the Luzerne County Prison on Water Street.


Her family lived there because the county provided an apartment with utilities inside the prison for the warden, which was common practice at that time. The warden's spouse also worked in a paid position as the prison matron, primarily watching over female inmates.


Perschau's father, William B. Healey, was appointed warden by the county prison board in July 1930, when she was 16 months old. Her mother, Pauline, was matron.


Growing up in a prison was quite the experience, said Perschau, 84, who lives in Silver Spring, Md.


The family, which also included her newborn brother, William B. Jr., lived in the prison apartment until 1937, when they relocated to a different warden's apartment in the newly constructed women's prison.


That building, located along River Street atop a hill between the county courthouse and prison, later housed the county juvenile detention center and now sits vacant with no plans for county reuse.


Bus stopped at prison

William B. Healey, 82, a Roman Catholic priest who lives in a religious retirement facility in Dunmore, remembers his school bus stopping in front of the prison because it was his home.


He spent many boyhood hours listening to inmates share their life stories and playing sports with them outside.


Back then, all of the county prison inmates for the most part were there on minor felonies. It was different before the advent of the drug culture. There wasn't a great sense of fear on my father's part letting us around them, and you always had the keepers at the prison on hand, he said.


Perschau never recalls feeling uneasy, saying the inmates all seemed to obey her father.


He was not a big man, but he had a very deep voice and seemed to command respect, said Perschau, who often tagged along when her father did the inmate roll call.


Inmates were permitted to play bocce ball and throw horse shoes, and there was enough room on the prison grounds for softball. Healey said he was often in the thick of these games.


I was the only kid on the block with a captive ball team -- literally, he said, adding that he often invited other neighborhood boys to the prison grounds for impromptu sports.


Perschau said her brother picked up many pointers from inmates.


My brother learned boxing and everything else. They used to play handball with him. He did a lot with them. They always seemed to be good to him and taught him a lot of sports, she said.


Prison to priesthood

She finds some humor in her brother's decision to devote his life to religion.


Here's a boy who grew up in prison and became a priest, she said.


Healey said his exposure to the struggles and rehabilitation of inmates left an impression, though he credits another priest for inspiring him to enter the priesthood.


Perschau said she was confused when she first started chatting with female inmates because each one pleaded innocence, including batches of women brought in during occasional raids of local prostitution houses.


They said they didn't do anything wrong, and someone just came along and brought them to the prison. In my mind, I didn't know. I thought, ‘Boy, I hope that doesn't happen to me,' she said.


Both apartments had kitchens, living rooms and several bedrooms. The family regularly ate alongside inmates and attended prison activities, including religious services.


There wasn't any barbed wire around the prison back then. The prison had around 160 inmates in 1931, compared to 700 to 750 in today's expanded prison complex.


The guards sometimes became frustrated when Perschau and her brother wanted to run in and out of the prison, which did not have a separate outside entrance like the apartment at the women's prison.


The person in charge would say, ‘Make up your minds,' she said, laughing and recalling the giant key required to open the gate.


Perks to prison living

Living in a prison had its perks. Perschau pored over books in the prison library, and her friends got a thrill coming there for sleepovers. A killer view of the city and nearby courthouse was hers for the taking on the women's prison rooftop landing.


But the women's prison apartment felt too institutional, said Perschau. She embraced invitations to visit her friends' traditional homes, particularly on laundry day because the warden's family clothing was washed by the prison staff and inmates.


A buzzer was used to summon Perschau for dinner if she was in her bedroom because voices wouldn't carry up all three stories. She remembers her sense of isolation when rheumatic fever confined her to her bedroom from September to June in fourth grade.


Perschau said her mother provided much of the medical attention for her and the inmates because she was a registered nurse. About 35 female inmates moved from the main prison to the women's prison when it opened in 1937, records show.


Her father had to be reappointed by the prison board annually and received accolades from many professional and law enforcement organizations during his career.


In 1939, when his reinstatement appeared to be shaky for political reasons, thousands of residents of both political parties signed a petition to ensure he remained warden, archives show.


Healey decided to retire at age 70 in 1963. His 33-year tenure was reported as the longest length-of-service for a prison warden in the country at that time.


The warden's annual salary was $5,419 in 1963, while the matron received $1,914.


Some citizens started a draft to try to force Healey to stay, including a former inmate who described Healey as strict yet kind and always willing to make time to counsel inmates.


Healey also was active in many community organizations and a frequent speaker on criminal justice issues.


The Healeys purchased a home on North Main Street after retirement.


Apartment unoccupied

The warden's apartment and matron position faded after they departed.


Lewis R. Winans, a former state police sergeant, and his wife, Marion, were hired warden and matron in June 1963, but officials eliminated her from the position the following year.


Perschau said she does not believe the warden's apartment was inhabited after her parents left.


The castle-like portion of the prison built in 1868 still stands but was altered in 1987 to accommodate more inmates. The portion of the building that once housed the apartment is now home to administrative offices, officials say.


Perschau visited the women's prison years ago when it was used as a juvenile detention center.


My old bedroom was a fingerprinting room, she said.


Healey said he wouldn't trade his childhood home and neighborhood. He recalls Laurel Line trains that ran along Water Street and sneaking to the Susquehanna River for a dip with friends to the consternation of his parents.


He'd play on a sizeable bank of coal that fed the prison boiler.


You could jump into the coal, which was a great sport for young kids, he said.


The prison heating facility also warmed the courthouse, and heat from the underground steam pipes between the buildings melted snow on sidewalks along Water Street, he said.


The street buzzed with activity from an ice cream plant and brewery.


It was a great place as a kid growing up, he said.




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