At a recent neighborhood gathering, I became acquainted with my new next-door neighbor. Blonde, pretty and vibrant, I never would have guessed that each morning as I watched her drive off the parking lot that she was headed for a local prison to do her job as a corrections officer.
Over the next few weeks as we all became better acquainted with Mary, we found ourselves riveted by her stories, from her choice of careers to her beliefs and philosophy regarding her vocation and the anecdotes that brought it all alive.
Mary spent her early work years as an undercover security guard. “I was good at my job,” Mary said, “and it naturally drew me to a career as a corrections officer.” In spite of the general assumption that men dominate this field, she soon found that women excelled in many areas.
Women, Mary explained, are less likely to be confrontational and are often better with words. Women naturally show more empathy, and in certain situations are frequently more successful at talking offenders down.
“However,” Mary added, “when it comes to bonding with other officers, it doesn’t matter whether they are male or female, we have to know that we have each other’s back.”
Mary recalled the time that she intervened when a prisoner refused to let several male officers cuff him. His religion didn’t allow women to touch him. Showing respect for his Islamic faith, she promised the offender that she would touch him as little as possible, that she would simply clip the cuffs onto his wrists.
After hearing her promise, the prisoner calmed down and allowed her to proceed. Mary’s respect earned the offender’s trust.
“The rule you need to follow,” said Mary, “is to be fair, firm and consistent. I earn prisoners’ respect by treating them like people and when appropriate using a little humor.”
Mary shared another anecdote that exemplified the use of humor. “There was one particular prisoner who attempted to intimidate me from the first time I encountered him. He would glare at me belligerently. I knew I had to change this situation. I pulled out a solution from one of my childhood memories. When I was a young girl and angry with my sister, she would poke fun at me and say, you should never smile. You look good that way.”
So with her sister’s teasing echoing in her mind, Mary walked over to where the offender was seated and repeated her sister’s words. “The prisoner stared at me,” Mary said, “and then he burst out laughing, and I knew that I had won.”
Mary ultimately used her bidding rights to gain offsite duty with low-risk offenders. She maintains that the offsite program offers offenders job skills and believes that through this program she can truly make a difference.
“When prisoners work offsite,” she said, “they talk to others outside the prison system, and they learn. They feel more human.” The crew that Mary takes out is currently working with the Center for Natural Lands Management in the restoration of Thurston County prairies. She said the prisoners like being outside and hate three-day weekends that leave them locked away for an extra 24 hours.
Mary claims that her most meaningful offsite assignment involved the search for the little girl that went missing from McCleary. Mary’s crew, along with several other offsite crews, joined up with Elma city police, Washington State Patrol, and Grays Harbor Sheriff’s deputies.
“We were all working together as a joint team. This is one of the most important things that I have ever done, ” said Mary. “All agencies agreed that this is how it should be done – working together. We saved incredible amounts of time.”
When she spoke of this search, her demeanor glowed with the obvious pride she took in this enterprise and in particular in her crew’s ability to effectively help in the search effort and the self-esteem they gained from this experience. “However, our success at working well as part of a larger team, in no way limited the sadness we all felt for the missing child and her family.”
Both Mary’s actions and words continuously expressed her desire to help the prisoners. “We do all we can,” Mary said, “so that they won’t come back.”
When I asked Mary about her career goals, she answered simply, “I hope I have changed at least one life.”
Cathy Smith is a retired public school teacher and a member of The Olympian’s 2014 Board of Contributors. She can be reached at email@example.com.