WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY 2012
Dora B. Schriro: Commissioner, NYC Dept. of Correction
What inspired you to pursue your current career?
My inspiration to go into the field of corrections goes back to my grandparents. From the earliest age, they exposed me to ideas and experiences that opened my eyes to the urban landscape and rural America, and to see firsthand the struggles of good people everywhere. I continued to think about those people and places throughout my childhood, and as a teen, I followed the news with a keen interest in social issues, especially social justice. One day in high school AP history, the discussion turned to corrections, and that was it, everything gelled. It was my ‘ah-ha’ moment. I was a goner.
What are some of the challenges you have faced and how did you resolve them?
Early on, and right after that ah-ha moment in high school history class, and I knew generally what I was going to do, the next question was how I was going to go about it. At the time, there were very few criminal justice programs and they were largely fledgling efforts. You could view that as a challenge. But most challenges are opportunities to find your own way. I opted for an urban campus with a strong sociology department with several phenomenal criminologists. It may have been largely luck, but it was a really lucky break. Throughout most of my career, my focus has been on systems reform—largely criminal justice and more recently, civil justice—reform and there was no better place to master those principles than in a sociology department. Another early challenge was coming out of school with no real world experience in the field; none of us had any. Who would have thought that years of retail-store sales and management experience as I worked my way through both bachelor’s and master’s degrees would help me to get my first break in corrections?
Truth be told, I have been very fortunate. The majority of people for whom I worked or who referred me for jobs, especially early on, were men. To a person, they saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself yet. I didn’t have the challenge many women experienced of the glass ceiling. I was just out there, crazy in love with this field, and saying, ‘I want in,’ and none of them dared to say ‘no.’
Over the years, I’ve been asked quite a few times, ‘Aren’t you scared?’ and other questions along the lines of, ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a job like that? Isn’t it very hard, isn’t it very scary?’ You know, for me it’s none of those things. For me, my greatest challenge would be not to be able to do this work at all or anymore. For me, even a bad day in ‘jail’ is still a good day because I’m doing the work that I love. This is work worth doing.
What are some of the accomplishments you’re proudest of?
Without a doubt, achieving a very successful resolution to the prison hostage situation in Arizona was a watershed moment. I can be at peace with a lot of stuff because of that. I feel grateful that I was the right person at the right time and place for that.
[Schriro was the new director of the Arizona State Department of Corrections in 2004 when there was a hostage situation at the Lewis Prison. Two violent inmates took over an armed guard’s tower and kept two staff members hostage for 15 days. The incident ended without any loss of life – the only time a major prison crisis in the U.S. ended with everyone alive.)
2. I’m really proud of the work I did at Immigrations and customs Enforcement, albeit for the short period of time I was there. I traveled the country and got my arms around a national system of sorts, the U.S. system of civil detention, a system that was not particularly well understood or operated, and I documented it, made sense of it, and proposed a comprehensive series of very practical recommendations to measurably improve it. The report and its recommendations were adopted almost immediately by the Department of Homeland Security.
3. I’m very proud of “Getting Ready” and the development of the underlying principles of this system reform, which I call “Parallel Universe.” It was remarkable to see the measurable improvements in the lives of correctional staff and inmates.
[“The Getting Ready: Keeping Communities Safe” program designed by Schriro is premised on the notion that life inside prison should resemble life outside prison (“parallel universe”) and that inmates can acquire values, habits, and skills that will help them become productive, law-abiding citizens if they are given the chance to make progressively more difficult decisions concerning their institutional lives. In 2008, the Arizona Department of Corrections won the Harvard University ‘Innovations in American Government Award’ for “Getting Ready: Keeping Communities Safe” -- the first time a correctional system was recognized in the Award’s 20-year history.]
Who have been the most influential mentors in your life?
My most influential mentors were grandparents, my husband, and Secretary of Homeland Security (former Arizona Governor) Janet Napolitano. My grandparents made my little world very big at an early age. They taught me how to ask the good questions. My husband helped me to find my internal compass and to learn to trust it. Janet Napolitano is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and she’s totally capable of having a great time wherever she is and regardless of the workload. And just like NYC Mayor Bloomberg, she is a leader who, when they choose you for a job, they make a commitment to see you through it so you can get your job done.
What would you describe as a turning point in your life?
I came into this field dedicated to the profession, with a heartfelt commitment to doing good works, probably in a direct service capacity, I thought. In a relatively short time however, I was appointed director of the Missouri Department of Corrections. As a new director, I sought out other commissioners and directors and what I quickly learned was that the average tenure for correction chiefs was just less than two years! And I thought to myself – after watching some of my peers posturing and being careful – “There’s little point in playing it safe. If all I have is two years, I’d better make the most of the time that I have.” This realization has guided me ever since. It’s enabled me to be fearless, true to my commitment to do as much good, to make as many changes, in the time I had. Over time, I’ve taken on hard issues, like privatization, sentencing reform, and capital punishment. As long as I’m informed with the facts, I don’t back down. In corrections, no matter how good you are some days are just going to be messy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at the city, state or federal level – someone, somewhere, doesn’t like what you’re doing. If you look for the undying approval of others, as we say in New York City – ‘fuhgeddaboudit! ‘
What are your future goals?
In the short term, I’m going to tear out and re-invent the backyard of my 100-year-old house this spring and if there’s time left over, try to remember how to sail.
In the for-real future though, I’d like to see if I could fulfill one of my longtime goals. I’d like to run my own thing, my own program, unencumbered by others’ rules. It could be at front end, maybe working with at-risk adolescents or at the back-end with justice-involved chronically mentally ill or female offenders. It’s something I’d really like to try.