'I know I'm making a difference': How a Wisc. CO became warden after being told she couldn't

Je'Leslie Taylor, 50, was doubted when she said she would be a warden one day, but she proved everyone wrong.

By Rachel Kubik
The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.

RACINE, Wis. — When Je'Leslie Taylor first started working for the state's Department of Corrections, she told a woman there, "I am going to be a warden one day."

The woman doubted her. She told her she couldn't do it.

Je'Leslie Taylor is warden at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility
Je'Leslie Taylor is warden at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility (Love Wisconsin website)

"So I said, 'Watch me,'" Taylor said. "Sometimes silence is very powerful. You can just say a phrase, be quiet, and then show them. I just believe that, when you tell me I can't, I'm going to show you that I can."

Taylor, 50, warden at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility, is a woman with a plan — and several backup plans — who is passionate about what she does. She wants the best for people and will be there to help out whenever she can.

She is currently one of only two institution wardens in the state who are women of color. And the warden part is just a title for her.

"The passion and the purpose that I have is not just work-related. It is truly who I am," Taylor said. "I love what I do. Even on my bad days. I love coming to work because I know I'm making a difference. I know I'm also walking in my purpose."

Plan A, B and C

Taylor was born in Oxford, Mississippi, and moved to Racine as a child because her parents wanted better work opportunities. She's stayed in Racine the majority of her life.

Her family was strict. She was raised by a police officer father and a nurse mother; they taught her to always have a plan.

They wanted their kids to go to college, so that was Taylor's plan A.

She attended Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, for not even a full semester before she realized college wasn't for her. She became pregnant at age 18.

"It was just like, 'OK, I need to come up with a plan B,'" she said. "College isn't for everyone. There are other avenues, opportunities, where you can be successful. I'm an example of that."

Often when she speaks to young people, such as the male offenders ages 18-24 in RYOCF's care, Taylor tells them there may be a time in their lives when they have an "Aha moment" that may cause them to reevaluate and make a change.

"That Aha moment for me was when I got pregnant," she said. "I had to make some decisions. I had to get out of that relationship. I had to get a job that was gonna provide me some benefits. It was that Aha moment like, 'OK, you have to grow up now. And you have to come up with a plan for your life because now your life isn't about you anymore.'"

Of the challenges Taylor has faced throughout her life, "I got through them," she said. "I learned from them, and I kept going."

She worked at Southern Wisconsin Center in Union Grove for about two years, a facility that serves adult clients with intellectual disabilities combined with other physical or mental health disorders. She then moved to Southern Oaks Girls School, a division of juvenile corrections. She said her passion for working with young people and in the Department of Corrections stemmed from there.

After holding various other positions, and after the girls' school closed, Taylor started working for RYOCF as a unit manager for a few years. She was then the program director at Racine Correctional Institution. She came back to RYOCF in 2017 as a deputy warden and then in 2019 became the warden.

Sunday, Oct. 2, is Taylor's 30-year anniversary of working for the State of Wisconsin.

"I have a passion for working with youth. I always have," she said. "I believe that I can impact and make a difference, and so that is my passion. And my purpose in life is to impact lives and help people see that they can change."

Taylor plans to be with the DOC for five more years and then plans to continue helping young people or working in anti-human trafficking.

The best part about working with the DOC for the past 30 years has been seeing staff grow and flourish in their careers, she said, and seeing young men and women that she's worked with grow, change and seeing the direction they follow.

"Seeing people here at RYOCF get on board with my vision for change for these young men here, just lets me know that God's purpose and works is being done," Taylor said.

She never forgets where she came from and the struggles she's had. Someone helped her get to where she is, so her job is to help someone else.

Her deputy warden, Kenya Mason, is the only Black female deputy warden in the state. Taylor hopes Mason will eventually take over her spot.

"When you look at Department of Corrections, look at female wardens and diversity, we definitely could improve," Taylor said.

Impacting others

Because Taylor has lived in Racine, she understands and has experienced some things that young people have experienced. She said she grew up economically disadvantaged and was exposed to crises. She got in trouble in high school and hung out with the wrong people at the wrong places.

Taylor is very passionate about mental health and helping heal trauma because she had her own trauma to work through, she said.

"I understand what it's like to put something in the back and not want to deal with it but eventually have to deal with it," she said.

When young people act out, they can easily be labeled without having the core issue addressed, which most of the time is mental health and trauma, Taylor said.

"They need positive role models, they need love. They need to know somebody cares for them," she said. "They're in survival mode trying to do their best they can. But that's not how it's being viewed. The question is, why? Do we take the time to say why? Or do we just label?"

Among the types of abuse is verbal abuse, which is powerful, she said.

"If you have somebody telling you that you're not going to be successful, you're not anything, you're dirt, that sticks with you. And that is what you start to think of yourself," Taylor said. "We have to try to change that thought, and show them that they can, they are beautiful, and they are smart, and be confident in yourself and hold your head up and believe in yourself."

Besides preaching those positive affirmations, Taylor also lends a listening ear. She said the young men in RYOCF's care share so much of their story with staff, and the staff in turn has to listen, understand, be empathetic and not judgmental of what crimes the men committed.

It's up to the staff to work with incarcerated people directly. But despite Taylor's busy schedule as warden, often consisting of operational duties, she makes her rounds to visit the young inmates at least once a week.

"Presence is powerful, and it also lets them know that I care, that I am here and the staff is here," Taylor said. "I can relate and understand where they're coming from and try to help them see that they can be successful in our community. And they are very important. And no matter what mistakes we make in life, as long as we learn and grow from them, we can still be successful. And whatever goals and dreams that we have, we still can achieve them."

Vikki Sorensen, administrative captain at RYOCF, first met Taylor while working at Southern Oaks Girls School. Throughout the 25-plus years they've known each other, what stands out most to Sorensen is Taylor's way of dealing with challenging youth.

"She had a way of bringing out the best in the worst situations," Sorensen said of their time at Southern Oaks. "The way she spoke to the girls was very impactful to them. The girls and staff found her to be a great listener, a source of information and encouraging."

Sorensen said Taylor is one of the most caring people she's ever known.

"She puts 100% into everything she does and continues to do so. She is confident, honest, transparent and has that 'never give up' attitude," Sorensen wrote in an email. "She is inspiring, very generous and is a true example of a leader. She has always recognized a job well done, and has a passion for what she does! And, she always wears the coolest-looking eyeglasses!"

Spreading her message

Taylor tells the inmates to always have a Plan A, B and C. She asks what their goals are once they get out of RYOCF, if they can tell somebody who they are and why they should hire them. And then she asks them how they can maintain that job.

"Those are my drilling moments for them," Taylor said, noting she emphasizes a "no labels" factor.

"You are not a DOC number. You are not a felon. Don't let people label you. You have a name; that is who you are," she said. "You may have some bad choices. You have to serve time for it, but that is not who you are."

Taylor tells them they can be anything they want to be.

"You may have to fight a little extra, you may have to work a little harder," she said. "You may have to come in early, stay late, you may have to do some extra things to get it done. You have to pay for some trainings out of your pocket to help you move forward, but it can be done. You got to believe in yourself. And I think that is my biggest thing, is making sure our youth and the young men here have confidence to believe in themselves."

Wider impact

RYOCF Human Resources Assistant Antawnette Boatner also first met Taylor at Southern Oaks, in 2001. The two have worked together in some capacity for the past 21 years.

Boatner said Taylor is "approachable and personable."

"She was a compassionate person which was really important for the young ladies we had in our care," Boatner said of their Southern Oaks time.

Boatner said Taylor "overwhelmingly deserves" her position as warden and has values of hard work, dedication, devotion and persistence.

" Ms. Taylor embodies what leadership means and what effective leadership looks like. She has an open-door policy, supporting and motivating her staff as they all work together to provide the best for the persons in our care," Boatner said, noting Taylor is a standout in the community as well. "Her compassion for others never goes unnoticed. She empowers others to work hard and strive for better opportunities."

"Je'Leslie was always willing to lend a helping hand," Sorensen said. "I cannot count how many times she went above and beyond to help someone out. She has this positive energy about her which is felt by many. She truly has made a difference in many people's lives."

(c)2022 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc. Visit The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc. at www.journaltimes.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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