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Changing of the guard as quarter of County Jail staff have college degree

Tuesday, March 08, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mark Brown

Howard Ward, 55, spent 31 years as a mailman before retiring and since then has been using his master’s degree in sociology to teach at Kennedy-King College.

Afra Hicks, 36, has a bachelor’s in marketing/mass communications, an MBA in training and development and a decade of experience in the insurance industry.

Kevin Cooper, 43, is a Navy veteran who worked 20 years as a union electrician and more recently earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Monique Brown, 26, has a bachelor’s in management, a master’s in human resource management and a couple of years under her belt doing HR work for non-profits.

On Wednesday, all four individuals are scheduled to graduate once again, this time from the Cook County Sheriff’s Training Academy, qualifying them to start work immediately at County Jail as corrections officers.

“Jail guards” is what you’d probably call them, but after completing a 16-week training program, they can be forgiven for preferring a job title that shows a little more respect.

Whether it’s a sign of the economic times or of tougher hiring standards in the sheriff’s office, recent graduating classes from the training academy, located at Moraine Valley College, have produced corrections officers who are noticeably better educated than their predecessors.

Of the 45 cadets set to graduate this week, at least 14 have bachelor’s degrees, and four of those also have master’s degrees.

A college education is not a requirement to become a corrections officer, but Scott Kurtovich, executive director of the academy, said it can be an advantage in surviving the testing and interviews that applicants must clear before being hired into the program.

Whether a college degree makes someone any better suited to maintaining order on a maximum-security tier is another question, although I’m sure some of the old hands at the jail will be letting us know what they think.

But all the cadets with whom I spoke during a visit to the academy last week expressed confidence that they can put their previous education and training to work inside the jail.

Gregory Barron, 28, said his late grandfather, a longtime jail employee, always used to tell him, “If you can fight, you can get the job.”

But Barron, a slightly built fellow with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, told me that while he can hold his own in a confrontation, “I find that my speaking can get the job done without resorting to physicality.”

This new breed of corrections officer definitely envisions a lot of talking with inmates instead of the usual barking orders.

Zaneta Thomas, 29, a schoolteacher by training with a master’s in education, said she hopes to counsel inmates on improving their lives and expects her prior work in Chicago public high schools to come in handy.

“A lot of the students had been to jail,” Thomas said. “I’ll be dealing with some of those same attitudes.”

Ward, the retired mailman who has been teaching college, said he likewise has been working with students who have been to jail and hopes to eventually get a position at the sheriff’s boot camp so he can keep others from ending up there.

“Maybe we can catch them on the front end of that,” Ward said. “This is my chance to give something to society.”

While the chance to do some good is an attraction, most of the trainees with whom I spoke were very clear about what brought them to the jail: job stability.

Having struggled to receive a steady paycheck in their chosen fields, they told me they were happy to take a job with good benefits and little likelihood of layoffs.

Thomas, the teacher, said she was tired of getting laid off at the end of every school year.

It was the furlough days that finally beat down Brown, the HR specialist.

Hicks, the insurance company worker with the MBA, said she “never in a million years” envisioned working at the jail as she charted a career in the corporate world. Now she hopes those skills will lead later to an administrative role with the sheriff.

Cooper, the electrician, said he decided to make a career change when he was advised after his last layoff off that it could be two years before he was called back.

“It’s nice to wake up in the morning and know you have a job,” Cooper said.

Let’s make a point of checking back in a year to find out if the jail has given them yet another education.



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