Female warden helping inmates

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The idea of being a prison warden never entered Stefanie Humphrey's mind in college. She earned a degree in public health planning to become a doctor or hospital administrator.

Humphrey was born in Reno in 1955. Her mother was a dancer at the Riverside in Reno's heyday. But she was raised in California and worked in Washington before coming to Reno for a job at the Nevada Mental Health Institute. It was there that she saw a state advertisement for a "counselor" with the Nevada State Prison.

Counselor turned out to be an inmate caseworker but she stuck with it. Now, after nine different jobs and nearly 15 years in the prison system, she's warden at Warm Springs Prison.

She's the only female warden in Nevada although her boss is also a woman -- Department of Corrections Director Jackie Crawford. But Humphrey says she doesn't think she got the job because of her gender. More important, she said, is her approach to the job -- an approach she says is shared by Crawford's other wardens as well.

She said it's now called the Department of Corrections instead of the Department of Prisons for a reason: The emphasis more and more is helping inmates overcome their addictions and learn social and job skills so they don't commit more crimes when released.

That, specifically, is the focus at Warm Springs, a 510-bed men's facility described as a "therapeutic community."

"I don't foresee us going back from the treatment era to the lockup era," she said. "It's not the nation's desire to just lock people up anymore."

She said the facility's Wings program is designed to help inmates beat drug and alcohol addiction as well as learn some skills for coping with the outside world and, so far, its graduates are doing much better at staying out of prison.

"Initially, they couldn't get anybody to volunteer for it," she said. "Now there's a waiting list."

For prison systems in general, more than 70 percent of inmates are repeat offenders. She said simply locking them up obviously doesn't work so places like Warm Springs are working on ways to teach inmates how to make it without committing more crimes.

"The focus is we're going to try give you some skills before you leave and the inmates are coming forward now telling us what skills they need," she said. "That's exciting."

Humphrey said she thinks she's good at that kind of approach -- it fits with her collegiate goals of helping people. But she said inmates shouldn't make the mistake of thinking she's a softy.

When she first went to work at Nevada State Prison on Fifth Street, she said it was trial by fire.

"Typically you wouldn't put a new caseworker with lockdown, death row and protective custody inmates but that's what they did," she said. "I learned my job very quickly."

And that means keeping your distance with inmates who are pros at conning their way past your guard.

"It takes a lot of strength, keeping your distance. It's a hard thing to teach staff -- to not be compromised, keep distance and learn to be friendly but not personal."

She said she enjoys being "on the yard," talking with inmates, being friendly, listening to them.

"But that doesn't mean I'm going to let that guard down," she said.

And she said a few inmates who have tried to cross the line have found out quickly it's not a good idea.

She said it's one area where the old school, hard line attitudes of traditional wardens are still correct.

She agrees it's a stressful job. Wardens have traditionally been first-class candidates for heart problems and other stress-related illnesses.

"The other wardens told me when I took this that, if you knew the right questions to ask, you probably wouldn't take the job," she said. "But they also said it'll be the best job you ever have."

So far, she says it's been true and, if there are things that need to change at Warm Springs, that's fine with her.

"I like a mess. That's what I've been about in the prison system. I've moved where there are problems and I fix them."

But she is also managing the stress in a variety of ways from hiking and skiing with husband Dennis, an analyst with the state's budget division, to redecorating everything from their home to her office.

"I'm an interior decorator. That's my thing," she said adding that she's left a string of refurbished offices behind as she moved form job to job. "I change every room every six months."


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