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All things to all people
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We just had to ask: The prison warden
Story by Damon Hodge
“We can put a policy or procedure in to stop something and it will work for a little while, and the inmates will find the loopholes in it, then it’s like a cat-and-mouse game.
Brian Williams, Warden, Southern Desert Correctional Center
Desert Companion: How did you get into corrections?
Brian Williams: It’s kind of weird. I received my degree in economics from the University of Illinois in 1990. When I was coming out of school, there weren’t many jobs anywhere. I met the deputy director of county probation and court services. He had me fill out an application. In two to three months, I got a call and an interview and was selected. I started my career at the juvenile detention center in Springfield, Ill.
DC: How’d you wind up in Vegas?
BW: One of my old bosses in Illinois, who was a deputy prisons director in Nevada, asked if I was interested in coming out here because it would put me close to California, where my parents were. I came here as an associate warden of programs in March 2005.
DC: What does a warden do?
BW: Being a warden is like being a mayor of a city. You oversee everything. I walk the yard continuously. I interact with inmates and with staff. I identify any issues, problems or deficiencies that we may have at the facility.
DC: What do you do that the public doesn’t know about?
BW: We were recently audited by the health department. A couple of months prior to that audit, I was making sure we were ready for inspection. People don’t know much about Southern Desert. It was built in 1982, so it’s a pretty old facility. Our culinary unit was designed for 750 inmates. Our population is now more than 2,000, so there are three times more inmates than what we were built for. So I do a lot of communicating with my supervisors, asking, “What do you need? How is everything going? How is your staffing?”
DC: Is there such a thing as a normal day at work?
BW: That’s the greatest thing about the job. Every day is different. We can put a policy or procedure in to stop something and it will work for a little while, and the inmates will find the loopholes in it, then it’s like a cat-and-mouse game.
DC: I bet you’ve met some smart inmates?
BW: We have attorneys, doctors, etc. We try to put them in positions to help the department, as far as developing software and rehab programs.
DC: From your job, what have you learned about human behavior?
BW: Treat people fairly and keep a balance. I have good racial balance — 38 percent white, 32 black, low-20 percent Hispanic. I don’t have many issues. When I do have issues, they’re normally on their own — Hispanic-on-Hispanic assaults, black-on-black assaults, white-on-white assaults.
DC: That your biggest concern — racial violence?
BW: Whenever a black and Hispanic or a black and a white get it, normally that continues and you can have a full-fledged race riot. So, race riots and escapes.
DC: Your pet peeves?
BW: Inmates that write grievances just to write grievances. Some are legit and I deal with them. Some are just so that inmates can sue the state and get some money.
DC: The funniest thing you’ve seen?
BW: Inmates do some stupid things. I wouldn’t classify them as funny, but if they used those skills on the street, they wouldn’t have to commit crimes.
DC: What programming is available for inmates?
BW: It’s taken a hit with the economy, but we have private organizations that set up their shops in the prison through what’s called Prison Industries. We had stain glass creations, card-sorting, woodshop, auto body and auto mechanic — those were the major jobs. Inmates would earn minimum wage and a percentage of their minimum wage would go back to the state to pay for housing, as well as the buildings they were leasing.
We have victim empathy, substance abuse and re-entry programs, six or seven education classes taught by psychologists, through which inmates can earn work or merit credits which can take time off their sentences. We don’t have enough programs. Almost 80 percent of inmates who go to prison are coming back out. If we don’t give them some type of program to help rehabilitate them, they’re going to come back out and more than likely re-offend. You don’t want your family or loved ones to be a victim of that offense.
DC: Are you on call 24/7?
BW: Yes. If something is serious, I’m on my way out to the facility. When we had those hard rains about a month ago, it washed everything out — part of my fence line, water flooding my infirmary and two housing units and some power knocked out. I had maintenance come in with the bulldozers. We locked the yard down, filled in my fence line and filled in all the ruts that the water runoff created. It took two days but we got everything back in order.
DC: Do you have generations of the same family in your facility?
BW: We have boot camps for juvenile offenders. Some of these juveniles don’t want to complete the boot camp and get their charges reduced. They say, “My dad, my uncle, my brother, they’re all locked up and I want to be with them.” It’s like a badge of honor.
DC: Any success stories?
BW: One guy did auto body for two years, then started his own company. You do have success stories. I don’t track them, but you hear other inmates talk about them and you can confirm their progress with paroled inmates.
DC: What’s the first thing you do when you get to work?
BW: I check all the incident reports and find out if there’s anything that needs to be turned into investigation or that I need to talk about my associate wardens with.
DC: What’s the last thing you do before you leave work?
BW: I go on the yard at 4 p.m., and talk to staff and inmates. We got a place called Times Square, where all the inmate services are, so all the inmates — gym, education, chapel, laundry, culinary, inmate store, all in the same area. You get to see a lot during that time.
DC: Do you take work home with you?
BW: When you’ve got some issues at your facility and you can’t figure them out, you go home and you’re wracking your brain to figure out how to deal with these problems. I reach out to my peers. The average life expectancy for my position is 66 to 67. So I try to have fun at work and break the monotony.
DC: How has the job influenced your view of human nature – how you see people?
BW: I see people as individuals, but also as products of their environments. At the start of my career, when I was working with juvenile offenders, I learned that whatever they’re introduced to, that’s what they know. When we visit adult parolees, we see the environments they grew up in — everything was filthy, there was glass on the basketball court, no nets on the basketball rims, the buildings where they lived smelled like urine and they were surrounded by prostitution and drug-dealing. That’s what they thought life was.
DC: Are these prisoners lost souls, inherently bad, a product of nature, nurture?
BW: When inmates get into the system, we introduce them to life skills programs and give them new experiences. Some of these inmates didn’t know anything about animals. They didn’t even know what a turtle was. But once you introduce them to new things, it opens their eyes. I don’t think anybody is a lost soul. You do the crime, you do the time. But while they’re in prison, I try to do my best to rehabilitate them and give them new skills. And we don’t want them to be lost souls: Eighty-five percent to 90 percent of inmates are going to get out at some point in time. They can end up being your next-door neighbor. So do you want us to rehabilitate them or just lock them up, then let them out?
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