Olympic Corrections Center: Memories Spanning 50 Years
July 20, 2017
FORKS – The year 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Olympic Corrections Center (OCC). The minimum-custody level prison, located in southern Clallam County, houses 381 male inmates.
The facility, surrounded by the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula, has seen many changes over the last half century. The facility started as an honor camp, where inmates performed forestry work. For a time, the site had two facilities, Olympic Corrections Center and Clearwater Corrections Center. They were both run under the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) until the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) was formed in 1981.
An Interview with 132 Years of Experience
Corrections communications staff recently interviewed four longtime OCC employees – Corrections Officer Ron Howell, Sgt. Jack Cornish, Plant Manager Greg Banner, and Construction and Maintenance Project Supervisor, Dave Woody. Together, they have a collective 132 years of service at OCC.
During their service, they’ve seen OCC go from a site with two facilities down to one and have seen corrections practices evolve. The following represents some of their memories and observations.
How long have you worked at OCC?
Jack Cornish: 35 years
Ron Howell: 33 years
Greg Banner: 29 years
Dave Woody: 35 years
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen since you began working at OCC?
Ron Howell: Uniforms. Uniforms made a big difference. (Editor’s note: Prior to the statutory creation of the Department of Corrections in 1981, correctional camps were run through DSHS. At the time Woody was hired, neither prison staff nor inmates were required to wear uniforms.) When we started that up, it made us more of an authority figure. I think they respected us more. It certainly was a good step in taking over and being in charge more.
Jack Cornish: Security has improved compared to what it used to be. Now we are security driven. Especially after the (Jayme) Biendl murder seven years ago. When we started work here, the number one goal of an officer was to make sure all the inmates were accounted for so we could protect the public. Now we’ve added extra measures to make sure staff are accounted for.
Dave Woody: Back then, we had recreation on both sides, so you wouldn’t have to transport them (inmates). We also had kitchens on both sides. When I started it was run more like a separate institution and the inmates didn’t really mingle that much. Back then, we (Clearwater Corrections Center and Olympic Corrections Center) were so separated. If someone (an inmate) would get in a fight, they’d separate them by taking them to Clearwater (Corrections Center).
Jack Cornish: Now we only have one recreation complex that everybody goes to where we transport them and now we only have one kitchen—there were two before—that everybody goes to. But back in the day, there was a gym over here, there was a gym over there, there was a kitchen on both sides.
In the past, jobs of OCC inmate work crews were limited mostly to cleaning up trash from the roadways (i.e. “litter crews”) However, in recent years, one of the most significant changes at OCC was to allow work crews to participate in community service projects. What spurred this idea and what are some examples of work projects?
Dave Woody: We started doing community service under Superintendent Sandy Carter (1998-2002). We kind of made that transition from just picking up litter to going out into the community, like painting crews on school grounds and stuff like that during summer. Then it really picked up when John (Aldana) was superintendent (2006-2017). John was very much an advocate for community service.
Ron Howell: We cut up to 300 cords of wood in the winter and give it out to organizations like Oly CAP (Olympic Community Action Program) in Forks, where it gets distributed to the needy. Part of it goes to the Forks High School scholarship auction they hold every year, in which they raise over $100,000 in one weekend. It also goes to the Forks Lions Club. And for the past three years, we’ve been providing most of the other prisons in the state with wood for their Native American religious program (sweat lodges).
Ron Howell: One instance we had four years ago, we restored 150 feet of stream bed just outside Forks for the (Pacific Coast) Salmon Coalition. Just a tiny little stream with enough flow in it so the salmon could spawn. We got to looking and there’s all these little baby salmon flopping around. To see 16 adult men, walking around, picking up these baby salmon, and taking them back over to the creek, the inmates were just beyond excited to see that!
Greg Banner: I’ve had several inmates, when you take them into town and they work, they say 'this is the first time in a long time that I’ve actually felt like I wasn’t in prison'. To go out and work in the community and stuff. This place does a lot for the community. Forks loves us. They love maintenance, they love the community service crews. We do a lot of stuff.
This next question is for Dave Woody and Greg Banner the two maintenance employees. You both supervise inmate work crews as part of the maintenance program at OCC and work with inmates in a different capacity than correctional officers. What insights have you gained into corrections coming from the perspective of maintenance employees? (Editor’s note: Dave Woody began his career at OCC as a correctional officer before transitioning to maintenance)
Greg Banner: You look at it in some aspect, you have to work with the inmates to get work out of them. You have a different relationship. You’re not so much an authoritative figure to them; a lot of times, you’re more like a mentor towards them.
Dave Woody: It’s not a power job where you tell them 'You’re going to sweep this floor, or I’m going to write you up'. They’re not going to want to do it.
Greg Banner: You don’t make them do what they do because they like doing what they’re doing. If you went out there and try to be authoritative, and tell them ‘You do this or else,’ nothing would ever get done. You have to gain their respect.
In my experience, you have to show what you’re willing to do. That you’ll jump right down there in the ditch with them. You’re not per say, any ‘better’ than they are. You’ve got to be willing to work alongside them. Especially nowadays, we’re getting a lot of guys who absolutely have no skills. You’re basically teaching them how to work. We have guys in here who don’t have a clue how to fix anything. You’re basically teaching them skills like our own parents taught us. You’re coming out as kind of their mentor in a way. You have to gain their respect; they have to learn to respect you. And you don’t lie to them. My guys know that I may not tell them what they like to hear all the time, but I am going to tell them what the reality is. They may not like it, but they understand that I’m not going to sit there and give them a lie to make it happen.
How has working with inmates has changed since your career has begun?
Jack Cornish: The first sergeant I had walked me up to the unit and said to me, “Remember these guys are animals, so treat them like an animal.” I’ve learned that’s not the truth. These guys are human beings. If you treat them with respect, fairness, deference, and the same way every day, they’re going to come back and treat you the same way.
What are some of the most rewarding parts about working at OCC?
Ron Howell: It’s pretty rewarding to hear some of these guys’ success stories. It’s good to see a person who worked for years with you and they get out and succeed. There’s a guy in Forks who was my right hand guy here in maintenance, he made it. From hearing his story, how he got here, he had a rough, rough time. He had his mom killed by his stepdad. He didn’t know anything else (but violence). But now he’s come up and he’s making it in the world. He’s been out a long time and is doing really well. He just worked for a cable company and now he’s doing construction work. He did a lot of time, but he got out and finally made it.
Another guy got his wastewater license, and works at the Cashmere (Washington) sewage treatment facility. (Editor’s note: OCC is one of four Washington prisons that offers wastewater treatment plant operator training programs). Some of these guys come from running amok their whole lives and they weren’t just a one time in and out. These guys were in and out and in and out and now they’re out and making good money. They’re paying taxes and buying property. It takes them a while to get there and you see them (return to prison) a few times, but it (success) is possible.
Jack Cornish: The good stories. The success stories. I’m probably the last guy who talks to them (inmates) before they release. I ask each of them, “Are you ready to go home?” Some of them will just sit there and say, “I’m going to do the best I can and I sure hope so.” Those guys who can’t say that when they leave, they’re probably going to come back. But the guy who’ll look me square in the eye, who goes 'I will never see you again', chances are I won’t see them again.
Greg Banner: When I started there was custody (staff), there were the inmates, and then there was maintenance (staff). There were three separate entities. Part of that was brought by the culture of the leadership at the time, but what I notice today is there’s more camaraderie and more willingness to work together. We’re more of a team than we’ve ever been.