Her Life Led Her Straight to Jail
ST. JOHNSBURY, VT. — As Gail Dwyer bounces past Vermont's bucolic villages in her green Department of Corrections van, the countryside grows rosy in the early morning light. "God's country," she says with a soft smile as her crew of "six offenders against society" nods off on the ride to the day's task, cutting roadside brush in East Hardwick. The men have been up since 5 a.m.
Many people think of being a prison guard as a dirty job filled with machismo and violence. Not Ms. Dwyer. She loves her job. As a crew supervisor in Vermont's first work camp for nonviolent offenders, the St. Johnsbury-based Caledonia Community Work Camp, Dwyer spends her days taking inmates sentenced for misdeeds into the community to paint, carpenter, cut roadside brush, or do other work. While paying their dues to society, she says, they learn skills and valuable lessons that can help them in life.
ROBERT HARBISON - STAFF
"These guys have no education and no self-esteem, but as tough people going along breaking into somebody's house, getting drunk and doing drugs, they become part of a gang. They get caught up in it," Dwyer says.
"I want to let them know that with some work ethics and a little work training, they can find a goal, follow a dream, get out of jail to make a life."
In the back of the van, the sleepy men occasionally wake to Dwyer's jokes, mixing their own with her quick laughter. But when the van crawls to a stop at its outback destination, the men know it's time to move into gear.
"Somebody get out and set up a work sign," Dwyer says in her no-nonsense voice. It's clear who's who. These tough men, traditionally not keen on taking orders from a woman, do so with no question, no commentary.
Dwyer loves her job, she says, because it gives her the chance to earn the inmates' trust and to help them turn their lives around. In fact, everything in her past seems to have led her straight to jail, where she takes deep pride in her career.
Abused and demeaned by men most of her life, unable to read and write until she was in her late 30s, Dwyer uses her bleak past to help those who could become abusers themselves find their good sides. She helps them see the light at the end of their own tunnels of trouble.
A cheerful grandmother of five, Dwyer inspires confidence and commands respect among inmates and peers alike, because she believes her work makes a difference. She's an out-of-the-ordinary corrections officer in a new type of jail, a blow to stereotypes about prison guards and about the role of women in a male-dominated institution - a point of light in a society that seems to be building jails faster than it can mend its social fabric.
"She just fits right here," says Fred DeZaine, who's spent almost three years in jail for dealing cocaine. "She's helped a lot of the younger guys, because she reads through their minds; she's even helped me, and I'm 52 years old!"
In Vermont as elsewhere in the country, women are slowly joining the ranks of corrections officers, although they make up only 17.6 percent of the profession. Dwyer is one of Vermont's 40 women corrections officers.
Four years into the jail system herself, where she's risen from Vista volunteer to night security guard and now work-crew supervisor, Dwyer is helping broaden the scope and style of the job of corrections officer, away from one of brute power and toward that of a participant in the offenders' return into society - a badly needed function when evidence is piling up that suggests jail alone doesn't work.
"Some people have issues of power and control with putting on a uniform," says Celeste Girrell, who runs the St. Johnsbury work camp. "But Gail has worked through very difficult issues and come to work here from a healthy viewpoint. She doesn't need to be in control, so inmates don't fight her. They respect her."
Why? Perhaps because Dwyer knows firsthand the type of life many inmates have had that has led them to jail. She had a lot to overcome herself.
Growing up in a three-room house with no running water in a remote Vermont town, the youngest of seven children, Dwyer did not succeed in school. She was later diagnosed as dyslexic.
High school, for her, ended the day her teacher stood in class and read aloud a report Dwyer had struggled to write, with backward letters and inverted words, pronouncing them funny, too.
"I got up, walked out of the classroom, and never went back," Dwyer says. "I felt humiliated, useless."
Until she left home, she says, she was sexually molested continually - by her father, by her cousins, by boys in the neighborhood.
She met her husband at 16. First, Brian seemed wonderful to her: He didn't drink, he didn't swear, he had a job. He was the only clean thing she'd ever known.
"I didn't feel dirty with Brian because he was my husband," Dwyer says.
Six months into her first pregnancy, however, Brian started beating her. The abuse went on for six years. Her eyes were often black and blue. Twice she ended up in the hospital.
When she tried to leave him, he would intimidate her into coming back.
"He'd tell me, 'If you leave me, I'll kill myself, and you can explain to my children why they don't have a father,' " Dwyer says. "I felt trapped."
Dwyer was 24 when, fearing for her life and those of her three children, she began to take charge, set goals for herself, and find ways of achieving them.
The turning point came when, in a moment of wrath, her husband wrapped a telephone cord around her neck and choked her. She grabbed the receiver, hit her husband on the head with it, and left with her children.
"I knew then I could survive," Dwyer says. "I wasn't going to be afraid, raped, or molested, ever again. Because Brian had told me I wouldn't be anything, I said, 'I will be something.' "
Her first job, at a federally funded parent-child center, showed her the way. Counseling young women who didn't know how to get out of abusive relationships gave her the courage to go on.
"I wanted to prove to these girls that life could be better if they had determination and a dream," Dwyer recalls. "I told them, 'You are a good person, you can make a better life for yourself.' "
Through the job, Dwyer taught herself to read. She got her high school equivalency diploma. Her children were her motivation.
"By then, I was reading everything I could get my hands on," she says. "I'd especially read to my kids. I didn't ever want them to have to sit in the back of the classroom and be ashamed because they couldn't read or write."
Eventually, six years ago, Dwyer made it through college.
In college she knew that she would pursue a career that, in one way or another, would contribute to slowing the pattern of physical and sexual abuse against girls and women. She would work with men in trouble, potential abusers, before they got caught in a cycle of abuse themselves, she decided.
It was Dwyer's cheerfulness, her inner strength, her "healthy outlook on life" that made Gregory MacDonald hire Dwyer for her first prison job, in the probation and parole office.
"I felt she had a lot to offer to those people from her own life experience," recalls Mr. MacDonald, now a regional corrections supervisor in Vermont. "She had a positive attitude despite some of the stuff she went through: She'd fit in very well."
MacDonald's instincts were on target. Within a year Dwyer landed a job at the state's first alternative-to-jail camp. The camp was just opening up and officials were stressing the importance of communication and human skills.
Dwyer was hired as a security guard at first, just to get her foot in the door. Her dream was to supervise small crews of guys so that she could relate to each one of them individually. She was promoted within a year to become one of seven supervisors in the 90-inmate Caledonia Community Work Camp.
"When my kids found out I was going to work with men, they had a fit," Dwyer recalls with a chuckle. "But as long as you treat [the men] with respect, they all treat you with respect. I've never been afraid."
She believes in the power of communication and encouragement. Supervising a six-man crew, she often takes inmates aside to talk to them.
There's a lot to do in seven hours, when the crew performs tasks as varied as painting historic churches, building bookshelves for libraries, and digging ditches for cash-strapped towns - all nonprofit jobs that wouldn't get done if it weren't for "the guys."
"Gail respects the inmates' special talent in order to bring out the best in their jobs and in their lives," says Girrell.
On the work site, Dwyer insists on a job well done. She wants to teach the men the reward of accomplishing something from start to finish without drugs or alcohol interfering.
She hammers at them that the skills they develop in the towns, painting and otherwise, can translate into good jobs some day. She is known as a perfectionist with a knack for making the inmates do the job.
It's obvious that in the process she does more than rule. She also mends the men's wounded self-esteem and teaches them important behavioral skills, such as how to take orders from a woman.
Ask Shawn Tanner, whose quick temper has often gotten him in trouble.
His crew had finished replacing the window panes of a historic one-room schoolhouse in the town of Newbury when Dwyer asked him to take the scaffolding down. It had been a long, painstaking job, and Tanner insisted he was not ready to do any more right then, his voice rising, his whole body giving signs of blowing up.
Dwyer stayed cool. "Shawn, take the scaffolding down," she said. Cursing, Tanner proceeded to take the scaffolding down. Before long, he approached Dwyer and apologized.
Matthew Emch was another inmate who Dwyer said was too much of a kid, too much of a follower. It was going along with friends out to steal VCRs that got him into trouble to begin with.
Then, last fall, at the Caledonia Community Work Camp, he was among of group of inmates caught trying to smuggle in marijuana. He spent 46 days in solitary confinement as a result.
Since he left jail this winter, Emch has landed a logging job; he lives with his mother in Richford. And he remembers the long conversations he and Dwyer used to have.
"She told me, 'Stop fooling around, you need a job, you need to grow up,' " he said recently. "She was a pretty good prison guard to talk to. She said, 'You can do it.' "
Residents of the town of Newbury, such as Cornelia Lien Waterfall, who's watched Dwyer interact with her crew week after week, have come to think of her as the head of a family: "She really was the head of the household with them; she created a sense of family," she says.
On the day the crew was cutting roadside brush in East Hardwick, it was a bitter cold that bonded offenders and supervisor. As they took a break, huddled in their overalls around a meal of fish and noodle soup cooked over a kerosene heater in the back of the van, they talked. Bob Rocheleau of Springfield looked back on his past. He had started roofing early on, at 15, because his parents had split up and he was more or less in charge of his four siblings. Trouble had followed: an armed robbery at 16, then alcohol-related problems.
"I didn't grow up to be a kid - too many responsibilities - that's why I've been so much of a drifter," says the tall, bearded man. He confesses that he has never known how to read and write, except for his name and Social Security number - "All you really need anyway," he says.
He and Dwyer talked about it.
"A lot of guys don't know how to read and write," Dwyer says, "and it's very embarrassing to them. It's wonderful when a guy comes up to me and says, 'You know, Gail, I don't know how to read and write either. Can you help me?' "
But it wasn't always easy for Dwyer to assert herself in a male-dominated jail, a woman ruling over men often hostile to women in positions of authority.
For her and the growing number of women who are entering the corrections field, overcoming the stereotypes of women as sexual or mother figures is one of the greatest challenges.
"Inmates try to push buttons. The things they say to us are often degrading, sexualized," says Girrell, the woman who heads the camp. "Our ability as professionals to tell them not to do that determines how we're going to make it."
"Gail chose to work through her personal history. That's what made her come out the other side and be a very competent professional, a person who's got confidence and is respected by offenders," Girrell says.
Many inmates say that Dwyer has helped them look at women differently.
"The guys get mad at her because they don't like to take orders from a woman," says DeZaine, who's been in jail long enough to have observed serious blowups, and their peaceful resolution, over and over. "But she makes sure she doesn't get pushed around as a woman. And it's good for a lot of young guys to see women don't belong in the house."
Ending the cycle of abuse
Dwyer believes that getting men to respect women is one of her most important tasks as a prison guard. It was why she entered the corrections field to begin with. She has seen the pattern of physical and sexual abuse against girls and women repeated from one generation to the next in her own family.
The calling to become a prison guard came halfway through college, just four years ago, when two members of her family were convicted of sexually molesting children. They had been abused themselves as children. It was a harrowing experience for Dwyer, who had to face up to a flood of newspaper accounts in a small town where everybody knows everybody. But at the same time, things began falling into place. Dwyer saw the "truth about why my family was the way it was," she says, and why she herself had been sexually abused.
"Sex abuse builds on and on," she says, tears forming in her eyes. "It's a cycle, just like battering your wife is a cycle and not being able to read and write is a cycle."
The cycles had to stop. It hit her that the only way to stop them was to work with men in trouble before they turned into abusers. So she decided to work in a jail.
Dwyer's past seems to have given her an unusual ability to pierce the armor that offenders have fashioned to protect themselves, often during a life of drug and alcohol abuse.
"I can feel it when somebody's having a bad day," she says. "We can talk about it instead of leaving him to blow off or be ugly. The guys know when you're sincere."
Frankie Sanborn knew it.
At age 7, he had seen his mother fatally burned in a house fire. At 14, he had been ejected by his father. Every night he sits on his bed and thinks about it, he says. Until recently, he'd never talked to anybody about it. He was 20 when-PATHNAME-