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Citizen warden or hermit warden: Who is running your facility?

While all wardens work within the bureaucracy of their department, they increasingly play a large role in our relationship with the local community


A sign marks a parking spot for the warden of the Rikers Island juvenile detention facility, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in New York.

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Wardens have become more political and less autonomous over the past 30 years, but despite this, they are still very powerful. All wardens work within the bureaucracy of their department. Increasingly, however, they also play a large role in our relationship with the local community.

I spent two years in two rural prison towns researching the relationship between prisons and communities and found that there are basically two types of wardens: “the citizen” and “the hermit.”

Like any typology or categorization, this one is not without its problems. The either/or nature of this model simplifies some of these problems, but this does not make it perfect. Some wardens and senior staff will act against type from time to time, but my research has shown a significant consistency in their behavior. Consistency is vital to good prison management. However, it is remarkable that, even in a crisis, citizens remain citizens and hermits hide out.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote to James Madison that a public servant should be constantly at his post. For Jefferson, the highest honor of citizenship was to be given such a post. The warden of a prison is just such a public servant, although not all understand that their post stretches beyond the razor wire of their facility.

characteristics of The “citizen” warden

The citizen warden is visible in the community. He is a citizen in the strongest Jeffersonian sense of the word in a place that comes closest to being a modern Jeffersonian Ward Republic, the small rural community.

Rural towns are places of intense personal contact and handshake deals. The citizen seems to instinctually understand this. He or she will be active in local civic groups, enthusiastically try and educate the public, and tend to be visible about town.

In towns with multiple facilities and an ever-changing administration, many top managers are unknown to the general population. The citizen will not only be known, he will be known by first name. One citizen became so involved that he eventually became mayor after he retired. Other citizens have become city counselors or county commissioners as well as becoming involved in the local community in a variety of other capacities.

Citizen wardens have four main characteristics:

  1. Accessibility: The citizen will be available to the community for various events and reachable to the local government, especially in times of stress.
  2. Openness: All of my interviewees acknowledged that all prisons are bound to have problems at some point. The citizen gives as much information as possible without jeopardizing the safety of employees and inmates. Especially in a small community where rumors run rampant, official word about problems that arise can be very important to the community at large.
  3. Charisma: In many ways the role of the warden in community relations is that of an educator. He or she must teach the public about the truths and myths of life in prison. The citizen warden takes this part of his or her job very seriously and understands the importance of this function.
  4. Confidence: The citizen warden is confident in his or her own abilities and that of his staff. This is especially important when it comes to the use of community service squads, inmates who go out in the community to perform a variety of functions. The citizen warden will be confident enough in his or her staff to protect the public from the inmates.

The citizen is concerned with making sure that the relationship with the community as a whole is as strong as possible. Many of the managers I spoke with said the public had many misunderstandings about what went on inside their facility, but very few actively did anything about it. The citizen will set up tours for local political and business leaders. He/she makes himself available to the local media, even in times of trouble. Prisons, on the whole, tend to be very secretive places and the citizen tries to open them up as best as he can without putting security in jeopardy.

One citizen put it to me in the following way. He said, “There are times when we screw up and there are times when things get screwed up. We need to educate the public so they can recognize the difference.”

The citizen is aware and open about the kinds of problems their employees have. This kind of openness can only help bring problems to the forefront. As is discussed below, not everyone is so open to such discussions.

characteristics of The “hermit” warden

The hermit would prefer to bury issues like domestic violence and other problems with their employees. The hermit hides in his or her institution and has as few dealings with the community as possible. The hermit sees his job as ending at the walls of his institution and either does not see or does not care about the problems of the community.

Wardens are inundated with invitations to local events and the hermit chooses not to attend even when there is time in his or her schedule. “Sometimes I don’t feel like hanging out with my neighbors after I’ve spent twelve hours at work,” one warden told me. But it seems that there is more than tiredness than can affect the relationship.

Some wardens told me that they felt like they were treated as outsiders by the community and that their employees were often singled out by local law enforcement and given speeding tickets and other moving violations. Interestingly, community residents often report that they find prison employees cliquish and unfriendly. Either way, a hermit will not help matters.

The value of good community relations

There are many ways for a citizen warden to foster good community relations, but the use of work crews is possibly the most visible. Using these squads can be a difficult proposition and the individual warden must be confident in their, and their staff’s, abilities in order to use them regularly. Nonetheless, the citizen warden understands their importance and is willing to take the risks. The hermit warden is not. According to one source, this is because the hermit does not trust in his or her own abilities or those of his or her staff to do so securely.

Although a warden’s job is and should be primarily focused on what goes on inside his institution, he or she should not forget the role in the community and the importance of good community relations. In many of these communities, the prison is the largest employer in town – akin to what Microsoft means to Redmond, Washington – and a little bit of effort goes a long way to making the prison a part of, rather than apart from, the local community.

This article, originally published May 2010, has been updated.

Eric J. Williams is a professor of criminal justice at Sonoma State University.

His book, “The Big House in a Small Town: Prisons, Communities, and Economics in Rural America,” is published by Praeger Press and can be found at Amazon.

Williams joins Corrections1 through the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. See all the CMIT columnists here.

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