An Interview with Adrienne Poteat, Retiring Deputy Director, CSOSA

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2013/12/interview-adrienne-poteat-retiring-deputy-director-csosa/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. The topic of today’s show, an interview with Adrienne Poteat, considered by many to be the dean of the criminal justice system in the nation’s capital. I’m going to briefly read a little bit about Adrienne’s background and we’re going to be asking her lots of questions. Ms. Poteat has 40 plus years of solid, law enforcement experience. In 1975, Ms. Poteat became the first female correctional officer hired in the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. Her career with the DC Department of Corrections quickly expanded from case manager, unit manager, to deputy warden of the maximum-security facility. During her tenure there, this facility became the first to achieve national accreditation from the American Correctional Association. She was promoted to warden of the correctional treatment facility. Ms. Poteat also served as Deputy Director for the Department of Corrections and in this position she had management oversight for a 11 correctional institutions and five key correctional program areas. After a distinguished career with the Department of Corrections, she began working for the US Parole Commission. In 2002 she was selected for her current position as Deputy Director for my agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency and this includes three and a half years as acting director.

Some of the awards that she has received – just some – she received numerous awards for her work, including most recently a 2012 Presidential Rank Award, the 2011 Chief of Police Merit Award, the 2010 Innovative Use of GPS Technology Award and in 2008, the Enterprise Intelligence Award. Adrienne Poteat, Deputy Director for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, who has now announced her retirement, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Hello Len, how are you?

Len Sipes:  I’m fine. And this is an honor. So many people, when I said that I was going to interview you, as sort of a farewell interview in terms of your announced retirement, I’ve heard so many incredible stories about grit and leadership, you’re knowledge of the criminal justice system. I’m not quite sure I know of anybody out there that I’ve talked to from the law enforcement side to the mayor’s office, to this agency, who just does not have an immense amount of respect for you. That’s amazing.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Well, thank you.

Len Sipes:  Is that across the board? That amount of respect, from everybody?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, it is. I really appreciate it. I really do. It’s an honor and a privilege for people to think so highly of you and respect the fact that you know, some of the work that you’ve done in this criminal justice agency.

Len Sipes:  You started off at the very bottom of the criminal justice system. You came in – at one time, I did not mention this, you worked for a law enforcement agency in Virginia as an intake officer, correct?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  That’s correct.

Len Sipes:  And then you went on to eventually become a correctional officer.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Well, before that I was a teacher in Montgomery County, in the public schools, teaching math. Then I started the career with the DC Department of Corrections.

Len Sipes:  Now you started off, again, at the lowest possible levels, as a correctional officer as I started off as a cadet in the Maryland State Police. We both started off at the lowest possible rungs within the system.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, I did.

Len Sipes:  And through that time, you eventually went from one position higher to the next position to the next position – I mean, your career steadily rose. Why is that? What was so special about Adrienne Poteat that she steadily rose in rank through the criminal justice system?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Well, I want to believe that it was the fact that I was committed to the work, I enjoyed the work. I valued the people that I worked for, I brought something to the table. I think I had some innovative ideas and creativity. I wanted to make a difference in women in the correctional field and therefore, I think, because of that, I was given opportunities to act in some capacities and was later selected to fill the positions.

Len Sipes:  But, you know, I know and you know, that I spoke to lots of women who have been police officers, years ago. Correctional officers years ago – it was not easy to be a woman in a male dominated field, whether on the law enforcement side or the correctional side. And I’m sure that you won through some problems being the first woman correctional officer. You won through some issues and you won through some challenges.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  It was very difficult. In fact, when I was first hired, being the first female, they didn’t know what to do with me. They didn’t know where to place me, what type of assignments. And so that was a challenge for management. Once they decided that, okay, we’ll put her in the command center, that was the first post they assigned me to, then they wouldn’t let me walk the compound. So which meant I couldn’t even go from the command center, right across to the culinary unit without an escort. That caused a lot of dissension among my fellow coworkers, because they felt like I was a correctional officer like they were, I was making the same type of pay, and I shouldn’t have been treated differently.

Len Sipes:  It’s one of the most difficult jobs on the face of the earth. I’ve spent a lot of times inside of prisons; I’ve spent a lot of time right beside correctional officers, watching what they do when I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety. It is an extraordinarily difficult job. But as the first woman, you know, you weren’t allowed to do the things that men were supposed to do, you were looked upon a certain way, you were probably looked upon with a certain level of skepticism. How did you break through all of that?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  I believe that you know, I showed the fact that number one, I was not afraid. I was not afraid of being inside the prison system. I was not afraid of working any assignment. In fact, I challenged many of my managers, “Just put me there and I’ll show you what I’m capable of doing.” I was not afraid to talk with the inmates. Because it was the District of Columbia system, we were required to comingle and talk with the clientele, even their families. So it was like management by walking around. They were not locked down, so they were very free to move about the compound, just like we’re free to move around here in the city. Only one facility where they were locked down, and that was the maximum security. So you couldn’t show fear and walk those walks and go into those dormitories and count the dormitories or counsel the offenders. You just couldn’t do that. You also had to have a level of respect. Respect for them – and you got respect from them. It’s amazing that there was a culture in the institutions where the inmates, if they trusted you, they would look out for you. If you treated them with respect, they did the same for you. If you were honest with them and forthright in the decisions that you made, they respected that. And so I think that’s what I brought, throughout my career. The same type of system, the same type of ideas, the same type of –

Len Sipes:  Well, no, the respect for the inmate population and they had  a certain respect for you. One of the things that amazes me is that I followed you the last 11 years around this city. Everybody in this city knows you. I can’t go anyplace without people coming up and going, “I know you. Where do I know you from?” And whether it be judges or whether it be from people in the law enforcement side or people in the correctional side, or inmates, former inmates, everybody looks at you with a big smile. The inmates – former inmates, they all know you. They all look at you, they want to shake your hand, they want to tell you how well they’ve done. You know, it’s amazing that they have this level of respect for a person who used to run that correctional system. That shows something, does it not?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, it does. And you have to go back and think about when we were working those compounds, or walking those walks, that oftentimes the inmates, they got into trouble, there was contraband, there were stabbings, or assaults, there were encounters that probably they didn’t need to engage in, sexual encounters in the facilities, and people realized that regardless, if they saw me or not, you had to respect the fact that I was a law enforcement official, that I was a correctional personnel and that if you did that in front of me, then you knew I was going to take action.

Len Sipes:  Of course.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  You also realized that regardless of what type of crime that you committed, regardless of where you were housed, I was going to give you the same respect as though that you were in the community, because I realized, even though that you were inside, one of use could have been inside as well, and I would want my family members, if any of them were locked up, to be treated the same way I treated these men and women that were in jail. And so even now, when I see them in the community, they will come to my office and I remember a lot of them because I had their fathers, their mothers, their sisters and their brothers, and I gave them all the same respect and time of day, regardless.

Len Sipes:  Well, I’ve also been with other correctional administrators and I’ve been with secretaries of public safety in the state of Maryland, yet nobody that I have been with has received such a – I mean, the smiles on individual’s faces was amazing to me. I’ve never seen, Adrienne Poteat, I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. So obviously you affected their lives in a very profound way. You were their chief jailer, yet they’re always so happy to see you, so that shows a level of respect that I have not seen in my entire career. I mean, all the rest were male correctional administrators in the past, and we’ve run into people that were on supervision, we’ve run into people who were locked up before, but I haven’t seen anybody with a big smile on their face come over and say, “Ms. Poteat! How are you?” I mean, that’s, I’ve always thought that that was an amazing thing, that affect that you had on people. The people that you locked up, the people that you supervised.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Well, I tell you, if I locked them up, they knew why they got locked up, and even I see them now, some of them will tell me, “Do you remember me?” And I may not remember who they are and they’ll even tell me the good stories or the bad stories and some of the bad stories are, “You know, you sent me behind the wall.” And my question to them, “Did you deserve it?” And the answer was, “Yes. You also told me I would never come out on the compound because of what I did. And I never came out.” I said, “So did I keep my word?” And they go, “Yes, you did.” So that’s being honest with them. You know the consequences of what you do. Or you get those that will tell you, “You don’t know how you helped me.” And a lot of times, I don’t remember. I really don’t. But it could be something very small and probably insignificant to us, but it meant a lot to them. The fact that you took the time out to talk to them, to listen, to help them, to guide them, to treat them with respect, to treat their families with respect, and to mentor them, if possible. If they needed a job, I could direct them somewhere where they could get a job. If they needed counseling somewhere, I’d pick up the phone myself and find a program for them; then and even now. Because I feel like I’m not going to ask anybody to do anything different than what I would do. So regardless of my position, they are still human beings and they still need to be treated as such and I’ll help them all.

Len Sipes:  The correctional system, whether it’s the District of Colombia, whether it’s Maryland, whether it’s any other correctional system in the country, is one of the hardest systems you can possibly imagine. People have no idea as to how difficult it is to run correctional systems. It is enormously difficult. People have no idea – when you’re walking that tier, it’s you and hundreds of inmates. It’s not, you know, a dozen correctional officers, it’s not 24, it’s you and you alone walking that tier and you’ve got hundreds of correctional, hundreds of inmates around you. It takes a certain amount of moxy to do a job as a correctional officer; it takes a certain amount of moxy, if I can, to be the first female correctional officer.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Well, you know, walking the tiers, you’re right, you walked by yourself. You had an officer that was at the end of the tier that would basically be your backup.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  But I would go from cell to cell. I would ask them how they’re doing. I would speak to them, and if they had an issue or a problem, I’d write it down and I’d let them know I’d get back to them. Wouldn’t promise to get back to them that day, but I would. And that meant I would come back to that same cell block and give them the response. Maybe not that they wanted, but at least they knew I listened to them, I heard them, and I responded to their issues. And I did that on a regular basis. And so therefore it wasn’t hard for me to walk the tiers. Now, were there occasions where you walk it and you get name-calling? Oh yes. I mean, I was no different than anyone else. But I tell you, sometimes when some of those offenders would call me out in my name or say things that were disrespectful, the other inmates on the tiers would straighten them out.

Len Sipes:  That’s amazing.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Because they would let them know, “Not her. Because this woman is here to help us.” And so that’s what I got in some of those cell blocks.

Len Sipes:  So you eventually started going through the levels of management within the correctional agencies, within the District of Columbia, steadily going up in terms of rank. Now, why was that? How as that? The average person who enters the criminal justice system does not have the, you know, go to the next system, go to the next level, go to the next level. There are people like me that become public affairs person and you stay in public affairs for 30 years. You steadily rose throughout the ranks. There is something in you, there’s some secret sauce, there’s some level of intelligence, there’s some level of determination. What made you constantly rise through the ranks to eventually become warden – I mean, that’s an amazing accomplishment – and then Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Corrections? And you oversaw 11 institutions. That’s an amazing transformation to go from walking the tiers to being in charge of 11 correctional institutions.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Well, Len, I’ve got to admit, it was not easy. I did not just automatically get promoted. There were a lot of stumbling blocks that I faced along the way. Many times, when I apply for jobs, I was not selected, even though I may have done well at the panel and the panel members had told me that I was the best candidate, but what it did, it never made me give up. Regardless of what the obstacles were, I was determined that it was not going to deter me from doing a good job and from keep trying and for my perseverance, I felt, eventually, when it’s my time, then I’ll know it. Then I’ll get that job. So if I got turned down three, four or five times, I never stopped, and that’s what happened. Eventually there was some jobs that I served in the capacity of. A good example is deputy warden. Well, for almost four or five years, I acted in that position, but I was never promoted in that position. And so that was a position I skipped over and it was not until later on that finally, I got the opportunity to become warden.

Len Sipes:  Topic of today’s show, an interview with Adrienne Poteat, who is again, as I said at the beginning of the program, considered by many to be the dean of the criminal justice system for the nation’s capital. Adrienne, I want to go on a little bit beyond the correctional system, but before going a little bit beyond the correctional system, again, you were one of the first females. There are all sorts of females that I have had as personal friends throughout my career who have been in corrections, who have been in law enforcement. And they’ve told me that the level of sexism was horrendous. You were also a black female. So were there issues of race that you had to confront as you went through all of this?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, yes there were.

Len Sipes:  Tell me a little bit about that.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  There was sexism because of me being a female.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  There was racism. When I started in the Department of Corrections, it was predominately white. Most of the staff were ex-military or they were family members of other members that had been there, in the system. And so there were, for the majority, there was a level of respect from my supervisors. There were occasions where I faced discrimination and I had a supervisor and I give him the utmost praise today. And I’m going to tell you who that person is.

Len Sipes:  Please.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  His name was Thomas Gatos. Thomas Gatos told me, when I came to his shift, “I don’t want any women on my shift and I’m going to make you quit your job. You’ll be gone before I am.” And I smiled to Thomas Gatos and said, “I’ll be here when you’re gone.” And so I was determined to show him that I can do this job. And I don’t care where you place me, then I’m going to do a good job. He would send me places like go to inspect the water tower, where I had to go in the tunnel and the tunnel was below ground, as you know, with the rats and the roaches. “If that’s where you want me to go, then that’s where I’ll go.” When we had escapes, he sent me out on the chase in the tic field. But I went, and if I had tics on me I pulled them off and I kept on going. Today, when Thomas Gatos retired, Gatos said to his constituents, “If anybody face any harassment and discrimination, it was Adrienne Poteat, and I have the utmost respect for her.” And I told him, “And I have the utmost respect for you, because you made me strive harder to prove to you that I could do this, and believe it or not, when he applied for a job, he had me as a reference.

Len Sipes:  That’s an amazing transformation.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  It was.

Len Sipes:  All right, so what I’m hearing in terms of the smiles that I get when I’m walking down the street with you, going to a community function with you, and the people that were locked up under your systems was your dedication to treating them as an individual. The level of respect that I hear from other members of the criminal justice system, I’m assuming that respect was for your obvious courage in terms of doing what it is you did. Your ultimate lesson in terms of not just being a female, not just being an African American female, but being in the criminal justice system, starting off at the lowest levels, rising to the highest levels. Your ultimate lesson to others who contemplate a career in criminal justice, who are already in criminal justice, what would you tell them?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Well, there are several lessons I would give them. Number one, working in a dominant male environment, you’ve got to understand, going in, that you’re going to face some challenges. Number one, you’re not wanted. Number two, you’re not appreciated, and number three, and they often felt that women ought to be secretaries. You know, there were certain positions that were designated for women and it surely wasn’t in the correctional arena and it surely wasn’t wardens or deputy wardens. I think today you find more females in higher positions than you did then, but the women had to be determined, number one, that they were coming in to do a job, and not sleep their way to the top. I mean, I think that was important. The other thing that they had to come with confidence and ethics among themselves and they had to come with the determination that “I can do this.” But you have to be committed to doing that type of work.  You’ve got to be a strong individual that regardless of what comes at you, that you’ll find a way to overcome whatever it is and to move forward. You can’t let people stagnate your growth and regardless of how many times that you apply for something and you don’t get it, you don’t give up because surely enough, someone will come along and they’ll see – “This individual is what we’ve been looking for. This person has overcome a lot of obstacles and challenges, this is the type of person that I want to lead.” And so the other lesson that I would say is just, drive hard. I want you to be a – you know, just like driving a car. Almost like speeding. Don’t go too fast, because sometimes when you go too fast you can fall off the track, but if you pace yourself and learn everything that there is to learn, you’d be surprised what you can accomplish. I took it upon myself not to wait for others to teach me. I would go and ask them, “Let me see what you’re doing. Or let  me do that.” Which meant I wanted to do the job that you’re doing and I want to learn it on my own. I’d read the policies and procedures. I’d take on tasks no one else wanted to take on. I’d follow behind people. I would seek out good mentors and I would take something from everybody else that I want to pattern behind.

Len Sipes:  Where did that drive come from?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  I’m just a determined individual. Both my parents are like that, so I think I got it honestly.

Len Sipes:  Well, but that’s the point, it came from your parents?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  I mean, there’s a certain drive, there’s a certain level – I mean, corrections is hard. Being a law enforcement officer is hard work, let alone the circumstances that you came up in. I mean, you know, didn’t you say to yourself halfway through or a quarter of the way through, your first week, “Oh, what the heck, go back to teaching. This is ridiculously difficult, I could be teaching in school.”

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, I did. And it’s funny that you ask me that. My first week on the job there was a stabbing. And in fact, it was a hatchet killing. They chopped the man’s face off and put him back in one of the dormitories and my supervisor told me, “You need to go to the infirmary and investigate and ride with the ambulance to the morgue and I said, ‘I’m not doing that.’” You know, that was my first case of insubordination, but I knew I could not ride with a dead body. And so you know, I’m saying, “What am I doing here? Is this what I signed up for?” But I got myself together, I did not go to the morgue, but after that you know, there were several assaults that took place, but I was able to overcome and deal with the situations at hand. But just imagine a woman, first time, and you see that. No.

Len Sipes:  Right, okay, so it came from your parents?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  That drive, that determination, that willingness to take on assignments nobody else wants to take on, that willingness not to back down, that came from Mom and Dad?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  And they’re the ones who instilled you with these values from the very beginning?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  They sure did.

Len Sipes:  And those are the values that you’ve carried with you throughout the entire criminal justice system?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, and my mother is a peoples person, very much so. She was almost like a socialite to me. She just enjoyed being around people and helping people and she was a teacher, a kindergarten teacher. And my father was in the Law Enforcement Arena and it’s almost like Secret Service, so I guess I got a little bit of both of them in me.

Len Sipes:  But the drive – I mean, the drive is extraordinary. I mean, to go through what you went through and never to give up and never to back down, again, that had to come from your mother and father. The compassion you had for the inmates and their families, that had to come from your mother and father. So it sounds like you had a heck of an upbringing.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, I did, but you also needed the support from the family, because believe me, my parents were very cautious. They were very concerned about me working in the prison system.

Len Sipes:  I would have been!

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Because they hear all kinds of rumors and they always said, “Well, I hope nothing happens to my little girl.” So you can imagine being the only child at the time, and you know, you’re working in a all-male dominated facility and seeing stories on TV or you know, what’s going to happen, but I had the family support and I’d always tell them, “I’m okay.”

Len Sipes:  You came over to the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, our agency, in 2002 as Deputy Director. You were the first deputy director?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, I was.

Len Sipes:  Okay, so you’ve been deputy director the entire time and you were acting director for three and a half years here, at the agency.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  That’s correct.

Len Sipes:  And so we’re – for people who may not – we are a federal parole and probation agency providing services to the District of Columbia. So it’s an entirely different world to some degree, to go from mainstream bars, institutions, maximum security, to parole and probation. What was that transformation like?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Well, this was an easy transformation for me, because if you go back over my work history, I have worked every facet of the criminal justice, from pretrial to the end. So because I have done that, it was very easy to understand and know what goes on at every step of the way, so that once it got to the parole or the probation area, then a lot of these individuals, I’ve had in the juvenile system, in the adult system.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  I conducted their hearings, parole hearing. So it’s not much that they can’t tell me that I don’t remember. And they’ll tell me I have a fantastic memory. I can tell them about, you know, “I remember your father, I knew where you lived, I knew your girlfriend that visited you. I remember who your wife was and I know your children.” So a lot of that has helped me in this particular position.

Len Sipes:  We’ve only got a couple of minutes left in the program. This is going by like wildfire. So after all of that, your lessons, personal lessons that you’ve given in terms of the larger lessons, in terms of the criminal justice system. So after 40 plus years in the criminal justice system, starting off at the lowest levels to the highest levels, what do you have to tell the rest of us in terms of the criminal justice system?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Criminal justice system is wonderful.

Len Sipes:  Okay.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  To me it is. It’s something that I enjoy; it’s something I have a passion for. It’s something that I really hate to leave because I’ve just committed and have that drive for it. And I can imagine, once I step out this door, I’m still going to get calls from offenders saying, “Can you help me do something.”

Len Sipes:  Oh, there’s no doubt in my mind, there’s no doubt in my mind about that.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  And I’m going to have to tell them that I’m retired. And I can hear them now, “I know, but you know somebody that can help me.”

Len Sipes:  But the average person, after spending that much time in the criminal justice system were sort of exhausted by it. I mean, you’re not. You’re very enthused about it. So what does the criminal justice system mean to you?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  This has been my world. I’ve known nothing else but that. You think, for 40 some years, I grew up in the criminal justices system.

Len Sipes:  Yes, you have.

Adrienne R. Poteat:  And so if I were to go out here and do something else, they’d say, “What else could you do?” All I know is law enforcement.

Len Sipes:  Right?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Will I stop working? No. I will probably venture out and do something else, probably still connected to this type of work.

Len Sipes:  But is it a fact that there’s a certain level within the criminal justice system that needs drive and compassion and justice and equity that you’re taking a system that most people see as a fairly harsh system and turn it into something else beyond the stereotype of the criminal justice system?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, it is, because sooner or later, a lot of these men and women are coming home. And there are so many barriers that they face. Number one, having a number. Number two, some of them being a black – whether black Hispanic, or any other nationality, the fact that they’ve got a charge on their record and so with the obstacles in the community like housing and employment, it’s very difficult for them to get jobs. It’s very difficult for them to secure adequate housing because it costs too much to live in this particular area. They’re competing with folks like you and me for employment. So I feel like we have a responsibility, because these are our sons and daughters, our fathers, our mothers that are coming back home, that deserve a second chance. And that’s why I like the fact that they’re doing so much towards their reentry, because they need to start that in the criminal justice system, while they’re incarcerated, so they’re prepared better once they come out under our supervision.

Len Sipes:  Just a couple seconds left. So the final word that you have is justice and equity and compassion within the criminal justice system and it’s possible to do both?

Adrienne R. Poteat:  Yes, it is possible to do both and don’t give up on them. Help everyone because even though you can’t help everybody, there’s somebody that you can make a difference for and I believe that as true correctional professionals, that’s the business that we’re in about helping.

Len Sipes:  Adrienne Poteat, it has been an absolute honor to work for you throughout the years. Ladies and gentlemen, the interview today, Adrienne Poteat, Deputy Director, right before her retirement form the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. Ladies and gentlemen this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticism and we want everybody to have yourselves a very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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