MACHIAS — A Jonesport woman who became a corrections officer in 1987 has risen through the ranks to become chief administrator of the Washington County Jail.
“I had very little knowledge about corrections when I applied back then,” Diana Tinker-Sawtelle recalled Monday, her first day at her new post. “They hired me and I walked in through the door without a clue.”
But Tinker-Sawtelle said that working in what she called nontraditional jobs — jobs she said were not normally performed by women — is nothing new to her.
“Don’t forget,” she said, “I grew up in Washington County, so I had to do it all.” Before becoming a county turnkey, she worked as a contractor for Georgia-Pacific, operating skidders, bulldozers and other pieces of heavy machinery.
She also knew that as construction neared completion on a new 32-bed jail to replace an antiquated 72-hour holding facility, the county soon would triple its complement of corrections officers. As Tinker learned, “It’s a big step to open a new jail after running a temporary holding facility.” The new facility opened in 1988.
“I came to this job never thinking of it as a career,” Tinker-Sawtelle admitted. “But this job is what you make it. If you can survive in here for three years, you can probably make it as a career corrections officer.”
While the day-to-day job of a corrections officer is “pretty well structured” by state mandates for inmate care and handling, officers still must be flexible.
“You need a sense of humor to work in corrections. You’ve got to laugh at it or you’ll get burnt,” she said, adding that burnout seems to come at the three-year point in an officer’s tenure. Most of her staff have at least five years invested in the job.
“You have to look at it like it’s a job,” said Tinker-Sawtelle. “But when you walk out that door, you’ve got to separate that job from your outside life. You can’t take the problems that come with this job home. Sometimes you can’t help it, but you can’t let the problems here get to you.”
Tinker-Sawtelle concedes that corrections officers work in an artificial environment at a jail, sealed off from the hustle and bustle on the streets just a few feet outside the facility’s walls. Tinker-Sawtelle’s office is itself a steel and glass cell-like enclosure. She needs one key to enter and a separate key to leave. It has no windows.
“In here, time means nothing,” Tinker-Sawtelle said, “because we’re out of touch with the outside world. You have to have nerves of steel, patience and an ability to assess a situation for what it is.”
Her staff of 15 full-time officers includes three other women. Tinker-Sawtelle said male inmates are generally more cooperative and treat the women officers with more respect than they do the male officers.
“Male inmates give the female officers very little trouble,” Tinker-Sawtelle said. “I think there’s some born instinct that tells them they can’t hurt a woman.”
She also theorized that male inmates would not want the jailhouse embarrassment of being “taken down” by a woman officer during a confrontation. Female inmates, meanwhile, at times may become “feisty” with female officers, Tinker-Sawtelle said.
Asked if she believed in inmate rehabilitation programs, she noted that in some cases an inmate can be rehabilitated. But for many other inmates — some of whom she said are the second or third generation of their families to pursue a career in crime — rehabilitation is not a feasible option.
She pointed out that alcohol and drug abuse remain the No. 1 cause of most crimes committed in Washington County. “Do away with alcohol and drugs,” Tinker-Sawtelle said, “and you’ll see a big change in the crime rate.”
Meanwhile, the administrator predicted her biggest challenge in the months ahead would involve budgeting to operate the best facility possible with increasingly scarce tax dollars. Personnel issues and morale are other concerns.
Coming up through the ranks from a newly hired corrections officer in 1987, to a line supervisor the next year, a senior sergeant in 1992 and, in a selection endorsed by county commissioners two weeks ago, the jail’s administrator, her staff already knows her. But, she said, “You have to develop relationships with people. They can make or break you in this job, and I couldn’t do my job without them.”