Three decades as a public servant generates patience, wisdom
Maggie Miller-Stout, superintendent of Airway Heights Corrections Center, has worked for the state of Washington for 36 years – the past 12 in the top spot at a prison where she oversees about 650 employees, 2,150 offenders and a $40 million annual budget.
It’s been a challenging winter.
On Jan. 29, Monroe Correctional Complex corrections officer Jayme Biendl was strangled at work in Western Washington. The death reverberated throughout the entire corrections system.
And public employees are in the national spotlight, sometimes in a negative way, due to the protests in Wisconsin.
Despite the challenges, Miller-Stout, 57, remains committed to public service, as she explained in a recent “Wise Words” interview. Here’s an excerpt.
• When I first started working with the state, my vacation was to go home and help the family with wheat harvest. Anybody who grows up around wheat knows that during harvest, if you get lightning strikes, it’s very likely to start fires.
We were in the middle of our harvest and listening to the CB radios. Every time there was a lightning strike, you could hear the crackle on the radio. First thing you did was scan the horizon to see if there was white smoke. You had your pickup set up with your firefighting gear. You dropped your harvest, picked up everything and everybody to go to the site. The whole community came together to fight the fire.
I learned that taking care of people, taking care of your co-workers, is more important sometimes than getting your own work done or focusing on yourself.
• Why was corrections a fit for me? I have a pretty even temperament. This is an art, not a science. There is not one right answer to how to do this business.
• What do almost all offenders have in common? They do acts that are wrong, and they consider the only reason they are being held accountable is because of someone else’s actions. They got caught. Or someone told on them.
• Which ones get out and stay out? The (ones) who start looking beyond themselves and realize they are hurting people.
That, and age. As offenders get older, the impulsiveness of youth gets replaced with the ability to look toward the future. A lot of times, they just get tired. By the time they get to 30 or 35, they look at the dudes in prison who are 55 or 75 or 90, and they think, “Oh my God, I don’t want that to be me.”
• One of the most empowering things in any prison is a high school graduation. You’ve got everyone from the 19-year-old to the 55-year-old getting their GEDs.
A lot of times getting a GED is the first success that generated recognition. If you get credit for doing something right, rather than getting punished for doing something wrong, it feels pretty darn good.
• One of the kids who was on my caseload in the juvenile system at Cedar Creek near Olympia, he still writes to me periodically. His criminal behavior was breaking into greenhouses and backyard grow operations in Browne’s Addition in the 1970s.
His comment to me was: “What are they going to do, turn me in?” Obviously if you’re growing marijuana in your back yard, calling the police isn’t going to happen.
I said, “You’re probably right. But did it ever occur to you they might pull out a gun and shoot you?” It was one of those light-bulb moments for this 17-year-old kid, the fact I took the time to care about him.
He also had rabbit feet. He escaped all the time. I made a deal with him – and back in the ’70s you could do a lot more stuff than we do these days. I had to go to training for two or three weeks. I said, “Promise me you won’t escape, and I’ll take you skiing when I get back.”
My husband and I took him skiing. It was one of the very few times that someone had made a commitment, extracted a promise and followed through on it. He still says it was one of the highlights of his life.
• I worked at Mission Creek Youth Camp in the early 1990s. This was when Tacoma was rife with gang wars. When I had release-date meetings with the kids, I’d ask them what they expected to be doing five years from now. Universally, the answer was “I’ll be in prison, or I’ll be dead.”
Talking to 16-year-old boys who truly did believe it was their only future was frightening. By the time I left the camp and went back to adult corrections in 1995, probably 14 of the kids I met there were in prison for killing someone and another nine had been killed.
• The day we learned about (Biendl), we made sure we touched base with staff that had worked at Monroe and knew Jayme or her family. When this happens anywhere in the system, we all think how it could have been one of us. Your family starts second-guessing your career.
The reality is that a bad man can do a bad thing any day of the week. We don’t talk to our families about it, and we don’t want them to think about this.
• The proper term is “corrections officer.” When you use the term guard, think of a junkyard dog. His whole job is to attack or report. He bites the intruder, or he barks to let someone know you’re there.
Corrections officers are on the job to interact with offenders, to communicate, to intervene, to hold people accountable in a way that helps them return to the community. We don’t just guard or watch people. That’s an archaic term that belongs in old Jimmy Cagney movies.
• I heard once (at an event) that state employees were eating at the trough, like hogs in a slop bucket. I thought, “Holy smokes, do you guys really know what public employees really do?”
We are under-recognized. Most people would be appalled if the services we provide disappeared. They’d be frightened – particularly with corrections and public safety agencies – if we didn’t exist.
• Is there something parents can do to guarantee their children will never end up behind bars? Be involved with your kids. Know where they are. Teach them values. Hold them accountable. Give them love.