If someone had told me 40 years ago that I would work inside of a prison for 34 years, I would have laughed in their face. Not only a prison, but one of the most famous maximum-security prisons in the country, Attica Correctional Facility. However, in 1982 at the age of 23, I stepped into a place that held some of the most notorious criminals in history. My parents begged me not to do it, but for some reason that I cannot explain, I was drawn to a life of crime, pun intended. There I was, a young, college educated female who had never even been inside of a local holding center jail, let alone a maximum-security prison. Nevertheless, that career path proved to be not only rewarding, but it actually helped me find my purpose.

One may ask why I would put myself in a dangerous situation or how I was able to adjust to an environment that is wrought with violence, negative thoughts, tension and high stress. Well, I adapted, and I did it quickly. Before I go into the details, let me first say that I wore several hats in my 34 years working in different facilities, ranging from medium security to maximum security. I started as an officer, and shortly after that, I became a civilian worker as an ombudsman for the inmate population. I then went into rehabilitation, working as a counselor. I was promoted several times and ended my career as a deputy superintendent overseeing rehabilitative services. 

So how does one integrate into an environment like this? For me, I had to develop the right tools. Before anyone is released inside the prison to work, they must receive extensive training. The main emphasis of all training, no matter what the topic, is safety. Safety has to be integrated into every area. When one looks at a place like Attica, for example, that houses 2,000 inmates, it is quite amazing that meals can be coordinated three times a day, in addition to inmates being moved to academic or vocational classes, medical appointments, commissary and the yard on a daily basis. In the scheme of all of this, there are three shifts, and inmates outnumber staff 100 to 1. This is a world within a world, where most staff leave out safe and sound.  I realized early on that you have to see these inmates as human beings who have the same needs that we all have: safety, empathy, hope and a reason to keep going. I had never been to jail, prior to working in one, but I was able to understand why most of them wound up there, which gave us common ground. The inmates realize that they need us for survival, and we realize that we need them. So now here I am again, four years after retirement, back “in prison,” as Medaille College’s director of the college prison program at Albion State Correctional Institution. If someone had told me that I would be back in prison again after retirement, I would have laughed in their face.

Deborah Watkins is an Author, Public Speaker, and Trainer. Prior to her retirement, she served in the New York State Department of Corrections for 33 years. Now, Watkins is the statewide Vice President of New York State Minorities in Criminal Justice and is a member of the Leadership Management – Council for Medaille College. She received her Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership from Medaille College and Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Canisius College. Read more…