By Scott Kernan, CDCR Secretary

When I retired, I set out to write down a number of stories from my long career in CDCR, more as a form of therapy rather than journalism. As I watched the recent tragedy in Dallas unfold on TV, I was struck by how both law enforcement and community leaders were speaking about the necessity to communicate with each other, to work as a community to keep the peace and treat each other with respect.  That compassion and human dignity shown toward both citizen and first responder is essential for the community’s well-being. The prison environment is a microcosm of the community. While discipline is necessary, we also need respect, humility and compassion to operate our prisons and return inmates back to the community as law-abiding citizens.

One story I wrote described an incident involving my mom. My interpretation comes from how she and her colleagues related it to me.   As some of you know, my mom was one of the first female captains at San Quentin State Prison and eventually retired as a warden at California State Prison, Solano.  She so much loved this profession and, as with so many other pioneering women, worked with an edge and a humanity that made us better.

Please understand the point of this story.  Providing a human touch to the people under our charge gets our staff home safe, rehabilitates inmates, reduces victims and protects public safety.  That human touch is not weakness, it’s strength.

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Inmate Tyrone Hilton* stood in the cell with the heavy porcelain sink in his mammoth hands.  He stood 6-foot-7-inches tall, weighed 295 pounds and his muscles bulged from years of pumping iron on the prison yard. A blanket draped the open cell front and deterred direct observation into the cell. The guards peered into small openings yelling for Tyrone to put the sink down and submit to handcuffs. Tyrone disregarded the orders and heaved the heavy porcelain sink into the cell front. The crash was deafening and shattered the sink into several large pieces.

Tyrone carefully selected the sharpest-edged piece, quickly wrapped a torn sheet around one end, and motioned the guards to come in and get him.  The threat of a violent confrontation only heightened the normally loud cell block with a deafening cry from the hundreds of inmates nearby. Water poured from the top floors of the five-tiered cell block as inmates supporting the deranged Tyrone plugged their toilets and kept flushing, creating a waterfall which added to the loud din.  Inmates began lighting rolls of toilet paper and flinging the makeshift torches. An acrid odor wafted throughout the building, the result of the fire, water, and normal stench of a thousand men cohabitating in a confined space. Oblivious to the escalating chaotic scene around him, and with the intent of satisfying his murderous rage, Tyrone continued to urge the guards to enter his cell.

Tyrone had spent a decade in the granite prison nestled next to San Francisco Bay. Convicted of attempted murder in a botched robbery just across the bay in Oakland, he had made a name for himself as an enforcer for a prison gang. His heavily tattooed body contained three tear drops under his right eye – signifying the successful murder of three souls who were enemies of his gang.  His work for the gang had turned his original 15-year sentence to life without the possibility of parole, and his massive size had earned him a reputation among the inmates that permitted him free reign in the most dangerous and deadly high-security prison in California. On this day he had received a letter advising him that his beloved mother had succumbed to cancer and the grief had provoked the blood rage that flowed through him.

Tyrone’s reputation for violence was well known by both inmates and guards. The staff at Tyrone’s cell front continued yelling orders for him to succumb while dreading the inevitable physical confrontation. The sergeant ordered one of the guards to go get the captain on duty to begin the process of extracting Tyrone from the cell. The process of extracting inmates had been practiced for 100 years and required the captain to order the cell door opened as several guards entered the confined space of the cell and physically place handcuffs on the inmate. The sergeant had a wry smile as he ordered staff to go get the captain.

Peggy Kernan, 5-foot-2 and 130 pounds, was sitting in her new office overlooking the chilly waters of the bay. This was her first week at the notorious San Quentin and she was the first female captain in its nearly 150-year history.  The male-dominated prison system had reluctantly begun permitting females to work in adult male prisons, and now placing them in positions of leadership.  Capt. Kernan was a widowed mother of four who worked in administrative jobs all her career. The staff had made it clear in that first week that she was not welcome and the chaotic scene at Tyrone’s cell was going to be the event that proved their point.

A guard knocked on the office door and Capt. Kernan internally fought dread as she was briefed of the situation. The departmental training had, of course, mentioned the violent cell extraction process and the role of the captain as the on-scene leader, but actually carrying out such an event with staff that had made it clear that she was unwanted unnerved her to the core. She grabbed her uniform jacket and permitted the guard to lead the way to the housing unit.  Upon entering the unit, the panic only worsened.  She heard the roar of inmates yelling in hysterical glee, smelled the heavy waft of smoke burning her nose and eyes.  The sergeant and lieutenant huddled with several other staff in the first floor office as she entered the room.

The lieutenant took control and began briefing her on the situation. He recounted Tyrone’s history of violence, recent news of his mother’s death and possession of a makeshift weapon. He identified the five staff members to accompany her to the cell front for the extraction. Capt. Kernan looked into the eyes of the guards who had been selected for the operation and noted the intense fear. In the prison environment, fear is weakness and weakness will get you killed. She wondered what these staff had done to be selected for such an assignment and wondered what her children would do without her.

Capt. Kernan and the extraction team climbed the stairs to the entrance of the third-floor tier. They plodded through the waterfall of water coming from the upper tiers of cells and dodged the burning toilet paper rolls sporadically raining in their direction. Capt. Kernan reached the cell that contained Tyrone, with the extraction team behind her, and peered into the darkness. She was not ready for the sheer size of the man or the intensity in his eyes.  She felt panic shoot through her body. She took a swallow of air to gather her nerves, tasted the smoke deep in her lungs, and stepped in front of the giant’s cell, completely vulnerable to attack. Her team took a step back from harm’s way and readied for the ensuing confrontation. The screaming from the throngs of inmates subsided and the housing unit settled into a tense quiet as inmates struggled to listen. The sergeant’s wry smile broadened as he witnessed the emerging scene from the safety behind a security gate.

Capt. Kernan began by introducing herself to Tyrone. “My name is Peggy Kernan. Tyrone, I’m 47 years old, widowed, and the mother of four.  I just started work here.  My children are asleep right now and will have nobody if I don’t make it out of here tonight.  Tyrone, I am very sorry about the loss of your mother.  She must have been a great woman.”

Tyrone tightened at the sight of the slight woman in front of his cell. Prison had taught him to act decisively and violently to survive. His reputation depended on it. But never before had a woman been involved in such prison business. An older widowed woman with four children waiting at home? She had called him Tyrone?  Staff and inmates had called him all kind of expletives, but never by his name. The confusion of the situation washed over him and he felt the intensity of his muscles loosen slightly. She asked Tyrone what his mother’s name was.  The question confused him even more; staff did not ask such questions.  He involuntarily uttered Stella, almost in a whisper.

The housing unit had a quiet stillness as inmates and staff strained to listen. Inmates in the adjoining cells reached their arms outside of their cells and focused broken pieces of mirror in the direction of Tyrone’s cell to catch a glimpse of the action.  “Stella. What a nice name, Tyrone. Can you tell me about her?”

The tension easing from his muscles was palpable now. The weapon still in his hand, Tyrone began to think of his mother and how to respond. More than a whisper now, he recounted how Stella had saved him from an abusive father and protected him from the mean streets of Oakland. Her memory was spilling over him now, the rage subsiding. The wry smile from the sergeant turned into a frown from behind the security gate.

After several minutes of just talking, Capt. Kernan said: “Tyrone, I need you to place the weapon on the ground and be placed in handcuffs. Your cell is a mess.  Let’s go down to the office and talk some more about Stella.”

The giant inmate was eager to keep this feeling that was so foreign to him. Talking with a woman, without the bravado he was so accustomed to, eased the pain.  He placed his weapon on the ground and placed his hands between the bars. Capt. Kernan ordered one of the extraction team members to place Tyrone in handcuffs and opened the cell door.  She grabbed his giant wrist and gently led him off the tier.  The silence in the cell block continued.  As they approached the security door where the sergeant stood, he angrily said, “Captain, I’ll take him from here.”

Capt. Kernan smiled decisively, and smoothly said, “No sergeant, I have him.  You and staff have a lot of work to get this placed cleaned up before you go off shift. She walked the giant inmate down the stairs and thought she saw him grin as they walked by the frowning sergeant.

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As we continue to evolve as a profession, especially considering the national discord with law enforcement in our communities, our emphasis has to be on de-escalation of violent incidents.  Communication, compassion and skills to avoid violence, such as in this story, are the measure of our success. I also want to recognize the significant achievement of women in our profession, past and present and in all disciplines, who make us a better organization.

* Inmate’s name changed for security purposes.

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Read more about women in corrections in the two-part Unlocking History series: