What does it take to be a prison warden?
The answer to that question is rapidly shifting.
On September 10, Hendry, along with 13 other wardens and assistant wardens from five prisons across the country graduated from the Warden Exchange™ (WE), a two-year-old program of Prison Fellowship to equip wardens to be transformative leaders in their prisons.
WE was the brain child of a Prison Fellowship donor who observed the profound impact Warden Burl Cain has had on the moral rehabilitation of the prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”), formerly known as the “bloodiest prison in America.”
The donor posed the question to the leadership at Prison Fellowship: If Warden Cain could transform Angola, couldn’t other wardens transform their prisons, too?
With backing from the donor, Prison Fellowship embraced the challenge and hired Pedro Moreno, a lawyer and a former senior advisor for the Bush administration, to spearhead the program—with the goal of helping wardens see their roles as change agents in their facilities and in the country’s correctional system as a whole.
Rehabilitating the System
Forty years ago, there were just a couple hundred thousand prisoners in America, Moreno explains. But that was before the “war on drugs” and mandatory sentencing policies began sending masses into prison for long periods of time for drug-related offenses. Today, there are 2.3 million Americans behind bars, costing taxpayers $80 billion every year. And it’s not exactly working; with recidivism rates at stubbornly high levels, while 700,000 are released to communities each year, two-thirds reoffend and many end up back in prisons. And wardens are getting pressure to do something about it.
In the past, prison officials were simply responsible to oversee safety and security: keep people locked up, and subsequently, keep communities safer. But now, in addition to the skyrocketing price tag of incarcerating millions, America is also dealing with a system that often sends people back into communities more dangerous than they were before they went in, due to issues like prison violence, abuse, rape, and lack of resources for rehabilitative programming that helps teach prisoners new ways.
Today’s warden is realizing that they need to do something differently in order to make both their prisons and their communities better places.
“Moral rehabilitation is more important than safety and security,” explains Moreno. “But for so long, safety and security were emphasized over and above moral rehabilitation.”
That’s changing and that’s where WE comes in.
During the seven-month course—that includes weekly video conferences, roundtable discussions, and three residencies in different cities across the country—wardens come together to learn more about the “soft skills” and best practices that can help transform the hearts and minds of prisoners. And they walk away with a specific action plan to improve their particular prison and a tight professional network to help support them in implementing their visions and plans.
“[Prison Fellowship] has been rehabilitating prisoners since 1976,” Moreno explains. “Now we’re also working to rehabilitate the system.”
Bringing Humanity Back to Prison
Hendry was promoted to warden at Martin back in November 2014.
“There was a lot of violence and issues with cleanliness and maintenance,” Hendry says. “It was a bad scene I was going into.”
Hendry attended his first residency with WE in January and he walked away with several ideas of ways to boost morale at Martin.
He began by unifying his staff, who were scattered across seven different facilities although all were a part of Martin. He created a motto: “One team. One unit. One family. We are Martin C.I.”
Among other changes, he also began introducing new language into the vocabulary of prison staff. “Please” and “thank you” were to be used when corrections staff would ask a prisoner to do something.
“We’ve seen tremendous results from the stuff we’ve brought back from the Warden Exchange program,” Hendry says, adding that WE helped him view himself as “a transformational leader, a restorative leader, and a community leader.”
It used to be, he explains, that they were finding cell phones and drugs all over the place. Now, they’re not.
Recently, one “resident” told him, “You’re not like any other warden I’ve ever seen … because you see us as human beings before you see us as inmates.”
Since its inception in 2014, the Warden Exchange has now graduated 29 wardens (prison CEOs) and deputy wardens from 10 states (CA, NY, AL, WV, OH, FL, MN, VA, MI, and OR) and is introducing an online-only version so that more wardens can participate. The next class will start in January 2016.
“This program has defined the modern warden,” Hendry said. “This program has given us power and hope to change corrections.”
Click here to learn more about the Warden Exchange.