Working at Department of Corrections is a Family Tradition – Mother and Son are Superintendents at Two DOC Prisons
November 4, 2015
Eleanor Vernell and Eric Jackson
As a child, Eric Jackson had no interest in following a long family tradition of working in corrections.
He dreamed of being a policeman, and after joining the Army and serving a tour of duty during Desert Storm, he even applied for a job with the Tacoma Police Department. But then a job opened up at the former McNeil Island Corrections Center and Jackson found himself pursuing a career he never expected.
More than 20 years later, Jackson made history by becoming superintendent of the Twin Rivers Unit at Monroe Correctional Complex – at the same time his mother is working as superintendent at the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair.
Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) officials say it’s never happened before in the history of the agency. The duo has a collective 54 years of service with the Department between them. Vernell has been a superintendent since 2010, first at Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt and, since 2013, the superintendent at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair. Jackson was appointed as superintendent of the Twin Rivers Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex in October.
Though their paths to corrections weren’t planned, they now say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Corrections gets in your soul,” Vernell said. “It’s something that sticks with you.”
“It’s really gratifying,“ Jackson adds. “It’s the fact of knowing something you did or said might have changed someone’s life for the better.”
Jackson’s Path To Corrections
Jackson’s first DOC job came after he served as a supply clerk and unit armorer in the U. S. Army. He applied for jobs with the Tacoma Police Department and at McNeil Island Corrections Center and ended up getting interviews at both agencies—30 minutes apart on the same day, so he had to choose. Jackson decided on the DOC interview and got a job as a correctional officer at McNeil Island.
Jackson has performed duties of almost every job in a prison environment: making daily rounds and checking in on offenders, processing paperwork, collaborating and supervising other staff members—all things that he says helped him set his sights on becoming a superintendent. He’s looking forward to having more of a leadership role.
“I learned each job that I held and once I was able to do it well and felt comfortable doing it, I set a goal for the next level.” Jackson said. “I’m looking forward to running my own facility. I have a lot of good ideas I’d like to follow through on as well as mentor future leaders.”
Jackson said seeing his mother’s success in corrections influenced his desire to advance his own career in the same field. He said if he ever needed advice, he could talk to his mother because she likely would have dealt with similar situations.
Seeing her past, I learned “that’s what you’ve got to do, come up through the ranks,’” he said, adding that he has always been able to solve problems on his own, but his mom was just a phone call away to “bounce stuff off of her on how to deal with situations the best ways.”
A Different Path to Corrections
Vernell said she didn’t want her son to go into corrections at first because she felt he was too young and wasn’t sure he could handle situations such as an offender who was trying to be manipulative.
But he proved resourceful, she said, and if he ever encountered a situation at work, would get suggestions from his supervisors, research policies and brainstorm innovative and effective ways to resolve the matter. “His decisions were always sound and he really surprised me,” Vernell said.
Though Vernell and her son are the first in the family to become superintendents in the field of corrections, their family has a history of gravitating toward the criminal justice field.
They both have several relatives who worked for the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Jackson’s grandfather, who is also Vernell’s stepfather, was a correctional officer at the penitentiary as were a couple of second cousins. Jackson also had an uncle who was a nurse there, as well as a second cousin who was a sergeant.
For her part, Vernell took a much different route to becoming a superintendent than her son.
She spent many years working for a board of education as a teacher’s aide and initially applied for a job at the Washington State Penitentiary to get better benefits and higher wages.
Vernell said the corrections field was still a very male-dominated industry when she began work at the penitentiary in the 1980s, and she’s had the chance to see job opportunities evolve and expand for women.
When she started, most jobs women had were confined to the visiting room or working as office assistants. “They didn’t have a lot of exposure to offenders,” Vernell said, noting that for a long time, men had the misconception that women would cry, or have to be “protected” from offenders.
“But they soon learned we all had to work together as a team to deal with violent offenders.” Vernell said.
Though Vernell’s been superintendent of two prisons, she says the most rewarding experience has been working with female offenders at Mission Creek Corrections Center.
“I’ve developed a passion for working with female offenders,” Vernell said. “I hadn’t worked with the female population before and I missed out on a lot. I like seeing their success stories, learning about their unique needs and watching them turn their life around… They just want to be heard. If you listen to them, they get their needs out and you can start to address those needs.”
Vernell said that working in corrections has given her son and her a bond that can’t be shared with immediate family members.
“The two of us, when we get together, we often end up talking about corrections. It’s enjoyable for us.”