Notes from the inside: An interview with Oakdale Warden Jim McKinney

Notes from the Inside features writing by inmates serving time in Iowa prisons. Little Village editors have made only minor adjustments for style. This is an excerpt of a longer interview.

Illustration by Josh Carroll
Illustration by Josh Carroll
By Tom S. & Jon S.

On Wednesday, Dec. 23, Oakdale Warden Jim McKinney was good enough to take some time out of his schedule to share some of his thoughts and perspectives about being our warden and answer some questions to allow us to get to know the man that’s running things here. Jon S. and I both met with Jim and the following article includes the questions we asked and the open answers he so kindly gave. Read on and get a view of the heart of the man and the philosophy of our new warden, Mr. Jim McKinney.

In your position as Warden, what elements are most rewarding or satisfying?

Well, things that have always made a difference are working with people. Staff members that started off as secretaries and moved up to treatment directors. Of all the Deputy Wardens in the state of Iowa, four of them worked directly for me, so that’s kind of nice to do. A lot of the people I’ve worked with I get to see excel at their jobs and careers and the other thing that’s been kind of neat was walking in the mall and some guy taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey Jim, thank you.” Then they’ll tell you they were at Rockwell City or Fort Dodge and now they’re out. A lot of time I tell people, because they always tell me they’re going to do great when they walk out the door, and I say, “Yeah, everybody tells me that but what I want you to do is in 10 years write me a letter telling me how you’re doing. I’ve actually gotten some letters 10 years later from people that are doing well. The Dog Program that we started at Rockwell City and went over to Fort Dodge, so many people have been helped through that program and then we started the Offender Banquet at Fort Dodge, and started telling guys that we’re going to treat you well for behaving well. I just feel like I’ve had my hand in a lot of stuff that made a difference; at least I hope I have.

What suggestion can you give our community here so that we can help you with your agenda and your goals at IMCC [Iowa Medical and Classification Center]?

I got to Fort Dodge and everybody wanted me to change everything overnight. And I can tell you, it’s the same thing here. You have to work with staff, and you have to work with offenders, and you have to get both sides to start to understand that it takes time and it’s hard because everybody wants things. But what is so simple to you is the most important thing in another person’s life. So like if you get a newspaper ad, and somebody doesn’t like that, and you get a white tank top, somebody doesn’t like that, and it’s trying to convince people it’s not about personal preferences, it’s about business decisions. How does the business hurt if we allow something? You know, when you grow up in a system that’s always controlled people and you have the ability to control then it’s easy to say, “No, they don’t need something.” Well, none of us really “need” very much in life anyway; but it’s about, “What do you gain by allowing something?” or “What does it hurt if you don’t allow something?” and trying to evaluate from a business perspective and it just takes time. My hope when I leave the facility is that when I ask the question, “What’s it going to be like when I’m gone?” And it shouldn’t be any different because people should evaluate things based upon solid and good, rational decisions. But to do that takes time because if I walk in the door and say, “I don’t care if you wear white tank tops,” or “I don’t care if you wear shorts to pill line,” or “I don’t care if you do…whatever,” then some people will see that as not a good thing because you’re getting something. You’ve got to take your time to explain what we’re getting in return. That philosophy allows you to make decisions that are good for the long-term. Say I’ve been in prison for five or six years and I think here’s this guy that’s coming in, and he’s going to give us white tank tops and we’ll have it by tomorrow. It doesn’t quite work that way. You have to make sure everyone is on board otherwise somebody’s going to find reasons to say that we shouldn’t have it. And then it becomes a bigger issue. Things will happen but they always have to be built upon. Everybody forgets that.

Have you identified any top priorities here that you want to focus on and that we should expect noticeable change in?

I’m not that kind of guy. I walk around the facility and I see things. Should we open the gym more? Should the library be open more? Those are important decisions. Should staffing level be changed? How do we get our overtime down? How is the budget going to look for next year? What staff members do I look for to be the next Security Director? I have Marcy Straub leaving, so I have a Treatment Director’s position open over there. What am I going to do with that position? Nursing staff, you know we’ve got some talented people that work here and they take good care of people and we need more nurses, and can we afford more nurses? If you walk into a place and say, “Here’s my top five priorities,” I think you miss it. You don’t walk into a marriage saying, “Here’s my top five priorities.” And then if the wife or the husband doesn’t meet them then you say, “I’m outta here.” What you do is, you build a relationship and from that relationship you start to decide what the needs are? There’ll be things five or seven years from now that you work on again trying to figure out how to make it better. You’ll never stop doing that.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 194

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