Working in prisons wasn’t part of Camille Griffin Camp’s plan. In fact, she said she never thought of a career in corrections. But a change in professional interest and a missed deadline irrevocably changed the course of her career. As the first female warden of a men’s maximum security prison in the U.S., defying expectations has kept her going strong.
Camp earned a degree in English from Meredith in 1964 and began teaching the subject to seniors at a high school in Garner, N.C. “I enjoyed teaching the literature, the art of diagramming sentences, and especially those tricky gerunds, participles, and infinitives,” she said.
The catalyst that altered the trajectory of her career and ultimately led to her work in the prison system occurred during her fifth year of teaching. Two students in her class, both males, captured Camp’s interest. Their troubling behavior – they were distracted and disrespectful – awakened in her a passion to help correct their behavior.
“I was determined to shape their behavior positively,” she said. “It became more important to me than teaching them English. It took much trial and error to gain their respect and attention, but I somehow found in myself the wherewithal to understand and influence both of them.”
After that year, Camp left the classroom and pursued a master’s degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina. She planned to become a school guidance counselor, a role that would allow her to focus her efforts on troubled youths while remaining in education.
During the five years she spent as a teacher, Camp married and had two children. When she enrolled in the master’s degree program, she was required to balance a number of competing and demanding priorities – something she thought she was handling with aplomb.
“I was juggling marriage, motherhood, and academics, and I thought I wasn’t missing a beat,” she recalled. “But when I failed to sign up promptly for an assignment to a school where I would do my internship, the beat I missed would change my life forever.”
By the time she signed up for her internship, there was just one option available. “The only agency left was not my choice; it was a men’s prison,” she said. “I was assigned to conduct group therapy with 10 inmates for six months,” she said.
Despite her family’s misgivings – and some of her own – Camp began her internship at the Manning Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility in Columbia, S.C.
“I showed up at the razor-wired gates with tight lips and a grapefruit in my throat, quite determined to be a successful therapist in spite of the location and clientele,” she said.
Inside the facility, Camp worked with men convicted of rape, murder, armed robbery, and other offenses. “I developed a passion to work with people who never had a chance, to help them gain insight into their behaviors and help them return to their communities as responsible men.”
Camp also got an insider’s look at the prison system and identified the need for reform. “From Manning there was no turning back,” she said. Gone was the goal of becoming a school guidance counselor. In her words, she’d been bitten by the prison bug.
“I decided to change the prison world for the better,” she said.
A Quest for Decency
She successfully completed her internship course and earned her master’s degree in 1972. Then she began her first full-time job in corrections as the unit manager of a male adolescent lockup at the John G. Richards School for Boys.
“The boys were much more difficult than the men at Manning – loud, impulsive, combative, disrespectful, unruly, bitter, and not about to listen to a young woman with hair down to her knees like a hippie,” she said.
Camp surmised the poor conditions within the facility had something to do with the boys’ behavior. “They lived in cages for two occupants and had thin mattresses draped over mesh wire,” she recalled. “They relieved themselves in ‘honey pots,’ also called ‘slop jars.’ The stench was nauseating.”
Her colleagues presented another challenge. They did not share her drive for improving the facility and some actively worked against her. “The staff paid me no mind, teased me, talked unkindly to the boys about me, and subjected me to one setup after another to break my determination to reform,” she said.
Instead of giving in to the mistreatment she faced, she became even more determined. “I just made a list of things to do for the next two years and set completion dates for each project, hoping that I wouldn’t lose steam along my journey to bring decency to that unit.”
Within one year, Camp had made significant reforms. She’d fired most of the staff and brought in replacements that passed her “subjective test for caring rather than beating.”
Church groups donated funds to help make Camp’s vision a reality after they’d visited the facility at her invitation. She used their donations to paint the walls with calming colors, install real toilets, and replace those makeshift mattresses with the real thing.
“Getting mattresses for the beds was my best accomplishment, because the inmates appreciated [a level of] comfort that most of them had never experienced,” she said. “That gratitude changed the tone of the unit.”
The atmosphere improved so much that eventually the inmates were allowed out of their cells, two at a time, to paint, clean, and even plant flowers at the entrance. Each inmate was also assigned a job to maintain the building or help with meals.
Camp established daily group therapy sessions for the inmates as well as a “token economy,” which incentivized good behavior and allowed inmates to work toward increased freedom. She and her staff met regularly to discuss any recurring problems.
Her efforts paid off. “It didn’t take two years [to implement the reforms],” she said. With the assistance of her new and carefully selected staff, she was able to effect significant change in just 15 months – well ahead of her self-imposed deadline.
The Woman for the Job
Eventually, Camp was ready for her next challenge. The men’s Maximum Security Center of the Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C., was plagued by a number of escapes and violent incidents. The state was in search of a new warden to run the facility. Because the two previous wardens had fallen victim to physical violence at the hands of inmates, no one in the South Carolina Department of Corrections wanted the position.
“The inmate population was made up of the most violent and escape-prone inmates in the prison system,” she said. “Every terrible day inside was chaotic and well-reported in newspapers and on TV.”
“I decided I was the woman for the job,” said Camp.
She applied for the position, but was not hired. “I wasn’t selected because I was a woman with very long hair and I had no intention of cutting it,” she said.
“Another warden was drafted to take over, but he was young and inexperienced. The stress gave him chest pains,” she said. “He was moved out after an heroic attempt to improve the unit.”
The position was available yet again, and undeterred by her predecessor’s experience, Camp reapplied.
The commissioner at the time, William D. Leeke, had concerns about Camp’s welfare if she took the job. But he also had concerns that she would sue him if she wasn’t appointed. She assured him that she would just wait for him to do the right thing. He asked her if she would cut her hair. “No sir,” she replied. “I can manage.”
Her approach worked. Leeke took her name to the Board of Trustees to approve her appointment. With their vote of approval, she made history by becoming the first female warden of a men’s maximum security prison. She started three weeks later.
Camp wasted no time implementing reforms in the fraught environment. She again turned to the community for assistance. Churches and colleges supported efforts to paint, renovate, and offer arts and writing programs inside the prison. She also made a change that required inmates to exercise and shower daily and take maintenance and cleaning jobs.
One of the most significant – and controversial – changes Camp made was taking away the “billy clubs” from correctional officers in an effort to control the cycle of violence.
It wasn’t a hasty decision. She planned, discussed, and wrote policies and procedures for officers to manage the inmates without clubs. Resignations, transfers, warnings from other wardens, and gossip from the remaining officers followed the implementation of the policy.
Camp remained unfazed. “I was determined to have a force of officers who could talk with inmates, de-escalate situations, and not have to carry clubs,” she said.
“I conducted trainings on all shifts on how to implement the new way of life in the prison,” she said. “There were bumps and starts because the officers were afraid, but they obeyed. The results were phenomenal.”
“The proof was the absence of any escapes or murder in that prison,” she said.
She also experienced another, more personal triumph. “I never cut my hair, nor was it ever grabbed by an inmate.”
The results of her work did not go unnoticed. After a year and a half as warden, she was recruited by Commissioner Leeke’s mentor, Ellis MacDougall, to implement much needed reforms in the Arizona prison system. She accepted his offer to work in Governor Bruce Babbitt’s administration as deputy director in charge of adult corrections for the Arizona Department of Corrections.
Arizona’s system was rife with challenges. There was no classification of inmates, which allowed for widespread corruption. MacDougall had written an evaluation of the Arizona State Prison that said it had “every correctional problem existing at all other prisons put together,” and that he’d “never seen a more difficult institution to operate.”
The corruption and chaos within Arizona’s system reached a breaking point in July 1978. Gary Tison and Randy Greenwalt – inmates serving sentences for murder – escaped from a minimum-security unit and led the notorious Tison Gang on a deadly two-week crime spree.
When Camp began working in Arizona later that year, MacDougall charged her with developing a classification system to prevent the circumstances that allowed violent offenders like Tison and Greenwalt to be placed in minimum-security facilities. She created an “objective classification instrument” and procedures for using it to make sure that no inmate had more supervision and restraint than needed – but enough to make sure the prison was secure.
In addition to devising the process for appropriately placing inmates, she was tasked with applying in Arizona’s facilities the reforms that worked so well in South Carolina. Arizona’s officers and wardens shared the same resistance to change, but she persevered and let the results speak for themselves.
She was next tapped in 1991 by Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell to fix the city’s prison system from soup-to-nuts. “It was the filthiest place I’d ever seen,” she said of the new environment.
She developed a three-year plan for getting the contracts required to fix the system’s failing infrastructure. Her plan included closing the Holmesburg Prison and having a new maximum-security prison built to replace it. Philadelphia presented another system in which classification of inmates was weak and ineffective, and where there were no established policies and procedures for the prison system. Camp quickly changed that.
She left Philadelphia in 1997 to assume a less hands-on prisons consulting career. “The current administrator [in Philadelphia] tells me that my influence is still alive,” she said. “Of course I don’t believe a word of it,” she added with a laugh.
Louis Giorla, the current commissioner, has nothing but praise for Camp. “In addition to classification, Camille contributed to the design of our flagship facility, Curran-Fromhold, which was opened in 1995, our first fully automated inmate records system, and the founding of what is now our Policy and Audit Unit,” he said. “She brought the Philadelphia Prison System into the 20th century.”
The Three Fs
Camp’s consulting career allowed her to work with other state systems to improve their prison operations, programs, and services. It also gave her time to use the English skills she honed at Meredith. Among other publications, she authored Staffing Analysis for Prisons with Special Considerations for Special Populations in 2004, which is widely used by training academies across the country. She also has served as co-executive director for the Association of State Correctional Administrators for 30 years.
Throughout her career, Camp has been driven by what she called the three Fs: fair, firm, and friendly.
“I have a deep-seated compassion for people getting a second chance,” she said. “I want to be firm in spite of that and I want to be fair. I don’t want to do more for one than another and I don’t want to dole out a punishment that doesn’t fit the misbehavior. And I am friendly!”
In her days as a warden, she would demonstrate her friendliness by greeting inmates over an intercom. “I’d say ‘good morning, I’m watching you!’ That sent a message that the warden wasn’t a mean, old, nasty person with six guns and a cowboy hat,” she said.
Camp’s approach to her work is strongly influenced by her personal philosophy about the purpose of corrections.
“One thing that’s important to me is to know what corrections is supposed to do,” she said. “The sentence is [the inmate’s] punishment and while they’re in corrections, you do what you can to try to improve their chances for success.”
She believes that, as a corrections officer, “you’re not supposed to make [the inmates’] lives miserable. You don’t try to punish them while they’re in prison unless they commit an act that’s punishable. That’s a change in paradigm that’s always worked for me.”
“As long as they’re behaving themselves and they are interested, I want to engage them in things that they can do to make their time [in prison] a time to improve, not just to deteriorate from people beating them up and being nasty to them.”
Camp admitted that sometimes her friendliness would be misplaced and that she, as a woman, faced different challenges than males in her position.
“There is something about a woman that brings out prisoners’ expectations of them,” she said. “If you’re a woman and you’re in charge, you become their mother. They feel encouraged that somebody ‘soft’ is going to listen to them and care of them.”
“They also tend to think that they can get over on you because they perceive you as soft, so how they feel about women is a double-edged sword,” she said.
Camp is encouraged by the continued gender diversity of corrections professionals, but thinks there is room for additional improvement.
“Male domination is alive and well, but women have made huge strides since I was in the thick of corrections,” she said. “There are women who serve as officers, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, deputy wardens, wardens – and now there are at least five directors of correctional systems in the U.S.”
To meet the growing interest of women in the field, Meredith recently began offering a degree in criminology. Camp said if she could do it over again with criminology as an option, she’d still choose English. “It serves me now as I write stories of a life and career that was replete with extraordinary experiences,” she said.
One extraordinary experience Camp recalled as especially profound was having an institution named for her. In 2002, the Women’s Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C., was renamed the Camille Griffin Graham* Correctional Institution. (*Her last name was Graham throughout her tenure in South Carolina.)
She was curious as to why a women’s prison would be named after her, since much of her work had been with male populations. “They said, ‘they’re women, and you’re a woman, so we decided to name it after you because of the work you’ve done, not only in South Carolina, but also nation-wide.”
The state’s General Assembly passed a law to rename the facility that proclaimed, “Camille Griffin Graham is an esteemed professional whose contributions to modern correctional practice continue to benefit corrections professionals and those in their charge.”
That is just one recognition she’s received during her long and influential career.
“I like to think that my success has encouraged women’s interest in corrections,” she said. “If there were only one, she would make me proud. As for me, I’ve had a heck of a ride!”