Education

University of Iowa graduate sees top corrections job as a perfect fit

Beth Skinner wants to help inmates succeed after prison

Beth Skinner, the new director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, says she is focused on building the department’s programs to help inmates, when they’re released, become productive citizens and not return to prison. (Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
Beth Skinner, the new director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, says she is focused on building the department’s programs to help inmates, when they’re released, become productive citizens and not return to prison. (Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)

DES MOINES — From the time she was a little girl growing up in Cleveland, Beth Skinner says she knew she wanted to be involved in law enforcement.

She remembers passing a police station while walking to her nearby grandparents’ house and saying some day she wanted to be a police officer — only to be told that women couldn’t do that job.

“I said, oh, yes, they can. Don’t tell me I can’t do that,” Skinner said. “So I’ve always had that desire.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in June appointed Skinner, 47, to head the Iowa Department of Corrections at an annual salary of $154,300. She’s the second woman to guide the state’s prisons and corrections operations.

Skinner’s career ambition took a slight detour when she enrolled in an internship with probation and parole while a University of Iowa student. She decided corrections was a better fit than being a police officer.

“I just fell in love with it,” said Skinner, who took more classes in the corrections field and landed a job in Coralville in 2003 as a residential officer in the 6th Judicial District. From there, she moved into a supervisor position and then took a job with the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center in 2012. That job required her to travel the country, learning about evidence-based practices, barriers and challenges to corrections work.

Skinner also amassed an academic biography with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree and doctorate in social work — all from the University of Iowa.

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In 2015, she returned to Iowa as statewide recidivism reduction coordinator and later was appointed director of risk reduction with the Iowa Department of Corrections, where she directed the department’s recidivism reduction initiative, its research division, training department and continuous quality improvement initiative.

When the agency’s top job opened last year, Skinner applied.

Second chances

“To me, it was a natural progression,” Skinner said in an interview. “I’m very focused on leadership and organizational development and culture. When this position came up, it was really the perfect fit for me because I have the academic background, I have the practical experience, I love leadership and I know this type of position has to have good leadership. So, to me, it was a good step up.”

In appointing Skinner to oversee a system with about 8,500 inmates in nine prisons and 38,000 in community-based facilities, the governor said she and Skinner share the same vision for a corrections system “that rehabilitates offenders so they can find purpose and become productive members of society.”

“I look forward to Beth implementing new practices, training and long-term planning so that redemption and second chances can guide the department,” Reynolds said.

Skinner said she believes offenders deserve second chances to make changes in their lives.

She has set about to build the corrections agency’s program capacity in problem solving, substance abuse treatment — especially for those incarcerated for meth-related offenses — and other ways that will help released offenders become productive and not return to prison.

Limited dollars

Part of the challenge, she said, is allocating resources appropriately and being strategic with limited dollars.

To that end, she has spent the first three months traveling the state, meeting corrections workers as they leave or start their shifts to introduce herself and hear their ideas and concerns — including getting up at 3 a.m. to greet workers in Clarinda as they leave the midnight shift.

“I want them to know we care about what they do and how important their work is, and I want them to understand the ‘why’ of the work,” Skinner said.

“I think a lot of times with our type of business and the fires that we have to put out and all the competing priorities, we have to come back to basics of why are we here to begin with and how your role fits in with the larger mission of public safety,” she added.

Union reaction

Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 61, the state’s largest employees union that includes corrections officers, is taking a wait-and-see approach to Skinner, given the sometimes-rocky track record he has had with past Department of Corrections directors.

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However, he took it as a good sign when she began visiting each institution to meet with staff — something he said was his recommendation.

“I don’t know her well enough. I have talked to her one time,” Homan said in a recent interview. “At least the new director had the wherewithal to come out and meet with me, unlike the other new directors in Ms. Reynolds’ new direction for state government.

Homan was critical of Reynolds for not meeting with him, saying “she doesn’t care about the people that work for this state,” but said he would give Skinner “an opportunity. But if things don’t change, I will be speaking out against her in the same way that I have spoken out against (her predecessors).”

‘Super-Dynamic’

Skinner, the parent of three children with her wife, Katrina, said she had not encountered special challenges in a position historically held by men in Iowa’s corrections’ system.

She said an increasing number of women are in top government leadership jobs.

“For me, it’s like walking the talk and being credible and having a lot of integrity,” Skinner said. “My experience and my background — I haven’t had any issues with that. I feel that people respect me the same whether I was a male.”

According to the Association of State Corrections Administrators, 16 states now have women at the helm of their corrections agencies, as well as one territory, two major U.S. cities and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Nicole Jarrett, head of the corrections and re-entry division of the Council of State Governments, said Skinner was an energetic, “super-dynamic person” who was passionate about corrections work and brought a “unique mix” of skills to bear.

“There are some people who just seem to be running on a lot of cylinders,” Jarrett said.

Skinner always saw “the big picture” and believed in a team approach to affecting culture change, implementing policy and lifting up others, she added.

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“She really always had the mindset of going back to Iowa and working the corrections agency,” Jarrett noted. “I know she’s up to the task.”

•Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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