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Mothers in Prison Interview - Warden Jim Cooksey

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I've been in corrections for 18 years. I started in corrections at FCI Memphis in 1983, out of college.  I went to USP Atlanta and then came back to Tennessee due to family and was brought up in the Tennessee system until 1992, at which time I went to work for a Corrections Corporation of America and then from Corrections Corporation of America I went to Wackenhut which in turn moved me to Arkansas in October of 2000, and I've been in Arkansas since October 2000 here at the grounds of the McPherson Unit.

Corrections runs in a cycle, and usually it's about a 20 year cycle over the history, if you'll look back in the history of corrections and you go from a security to treatment is the way it cycles, and I've been through the cycle. When I hired in to corrections it was security, and treatment was way, you know, wasn't even thought of or if it was, it was very limited. We still maintain security, maintain custody of the prisoner, but we also want to get more in to the treatment phase.

I feel like you give the person the opportunity. You give that person the program. You give the person the outlet to try to improve themselves and then it's up to the person, but me, as a warden and administrator of the facility or the system work here at the McPherson Unit, that my job is to make sure that we offer programs and get inmates involved in programs so they can improve their outlook once they get out, even if they're going to be here for life. You want those type of inmates also trying to get in to the programs so change their attitude, to deal with their incarceration time and, you know, I'm all for that. It makes my job a lot easier even in the male population. If I can get inmates in the programs to try to improve themselves, to maybe get them away from that more violent cycle that they get in to when they're just sitting idle and that makes their time go a lot better and also it gives them maybe an outlook on how to improve themselves to be a better person once they get out.

We also have programs through our mental health department that deal with stress management, how to deal with everyday stress. We have programs that deal with anger management because that's what gets a lot of them in here. They just can't control their everyday emotions and that's what that program is dealing with. We have programs that are dealing with co-dependency. A lot of our females, you'll find out are co-conspirators and that's because a boyfriend or somebody else influences them to get in to trouble. So, our mental health department is working on programs to try to help them on co-dependency, kind of like the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs.  We have a power program here that is a religious based program that Arkansas is one of the few states that's offering that program and that is a volunteer program for the inmates to get in to. They're not forced in to it. If they want to join that program they can and it helps them to deal with daily living issues.  So, you know, there's a lot of good programs inside this facility that we're trying to develop.

I'd like everybody in Arkansas to understand, the McPherson Unit is a female facility and that maybe they don't understand why we try to offer the females the programming we do, why we try to get them in to education, vo-tech, that maybe we're trying to be too lenient and soft on them and we're really not. Our job, as the department of corrections, is not to punish the individual but to try to send the individual back to society better than he was. The punishment is done by the courts and what we do here at the facility will influence society as a whole because most of these females are the core part of the family unit, raising the children.  So, our job is try to get that female back out to raise her children to try to slow them down from committing crimes. So, it's a win-win for all of us if we can send that person back out a better person than what they were when they came in to the facility for not just the department of corrections but also for society as a whole.

Our GED program here at the prison is one of the largest programs that we have.  We have over 260 individuals or inmates in the program and Arkansas does require that a person work towards their education while they're incarcerated to try to get their GED. That can be stipulated on to their parole that they get their GED before they're released. Also inside our education department we also have a vo-tech program and the inmates, once they complete their GED can actually go in to the vo-tech program and learn even more skills. They can learn skills such as cosmetology. They can learn skills as computer drafting, computer technology, secretarial science. They give them even additional job skills that when they get released they can go in to society and these are vo-tech certificates, the same as if you went down to the local vo-ech school and got your training there and got your certificate.  And one last component of their education is we do have college classes that the inmates can take at night from Arkansas State University where if a female is motivated she can even try and work towards her college degree while she's incarcerated and that gives her even more employability once she gets out.  And the females seem to take part in the education component even more than the males because I think they see that they are a major part of the family component and that they don't want to re-offend and they want to have some type of avenue to support themselves, to support their children once they get out of prison. So, they really participate in the programs and our education program here is excellent. We have one of the best in the state.

I don't feel like there's a typical profile. I do feel like you can put them in to certain categories. Most of our population would come from the lower social economic basis. In other words, they would come from the lower middle class to the poorer part of society, due to that's where the majority of the crime is committed in America.  But to say that all the females that come here are, are typically this, no, because each individual comes in with their own particular problems, their own family issues, their own issues of dealing with incarceration, their own type of crime. I mean, we range here at the McPherson Unit on all types of crimes in Arkansas, from writing bad checks all the way up to murder, murder one.

We have mothers here. Fathers at other units. Husbands at other units. Sons across the street. There's whole family components that's locked up inside the department of corrections in Arkansas. It's the same for Tennessee. Arkansas doesn't have this disease on its own and it's the same in Indiana. It's the same in Michigan where I worked, for the whole family, that's all they know because that's how the whole family was brought up. Uncle Joe went to prison. My grandpa was in prison and, you know, I look at all the visitation applications here at the unit and you look at a lot of the family that is visiting with the inmates. They've done prison time and hopefully the way the department is revolving now, trying to move towards giving the inmates instruments to improve themselves, give them an education, give them a program, teach them job skills, teach them how to be accountable for their actions that maybe we can slow down this recidivism, this revolving door where the whole family wants to come to prison not wants to come to prison but does end up at prison. So, I think that's part of my job too and, like I said, we see a lot of that in the department.

I enjoy my job.  I've been in it for 18 years and I enjoy corrections. I actually got out of corrections a few years ago for six months thinking I want to do something different with my life and also, my family still doesn't understand why I like going to prison every day, and who does for somebody that doesn't work here. But I enjoy working with the people. I enjoy trying to see people that who are trying to improve their self and you know, I can't say that I come to work everyday hoping that I see some inmate jump up out of the chair and say, Hallelujah, Amen, I am now reformed.I don't expect that to happen but I do want to see us run a good facility that we know that we're giving them the tools to be I feel like I'm doing my part for society in the role I'm in to send out better people. Now, I don't send out a 100% better people, you know, every once in a while we have a few inmates that like to come back and see us but it's not I hope that it's not something that I've done or something that my staff's done that wants to make them re-offend. It's their decision because all we can do is give them the tools not to re-offend and that's what I think our job is, is to give them those tools to decide what's right and what's wrong and then they have to decide. They have to rehabilitate their self. I don't think we do it. I think we just give them the tools.