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Release from Stereotypes

A stereotype of prisons is that they act as revolving doors. Inmates serve their time, are released, and end up being imprisoned again.

But the path to becoming a career criminal can be diverted through education, as Darlene Veltri ’76 knows very well. She is one of fifteen female wardens working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP).

Darlene Veltri

Darlene Veltri
Photo: David Stile

Veltri was a special education teacher in the late 1970s. After completing her masters program at West Virginia University, she was offered a doctoral fellowship in exchange for helping with a research grant at the federal prison in Morgantown, W.Va. Her initial assignment was teaching the lowest level inmates how to read.

“I enjoyed making a difference in someone’s life, especially when I could see the results,” she said. “For some inmates with long sentences, the objective was just to help them with survival skills right there at the institution, such as being able to read their commissary list and write a letter home, or being able to read the signs in the institution. Others would be helped in making plans to transition back into the community.”

As warden of the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Greenville, Ill., Veltri no longer deals directly with the educational aspect. However, she still considers herself to have a valuable role in making the inmates feel they are a valued aspect of the institution’s total mission. Her special education training taught her that change can sometimes be very slow, whether through improvements with students or organizations.

“Some of the skills I developed as a special education teacher stress the importance of patience and dogged persistence,” she said. “You learn to be very structured and analyze situations on how best to teach individuals, and that also applies in a prison.”

Some lessons, though, can only be learned on the career ladder. The combination of what she learned at IUP, graduate school, and the Bureau of Prisons’ training programs put her in the position to make a profound difference in people’s lives.

The Bureau’s standardized training program is enhanced at the institution. Veltri’s staff undergoes constant training, keeping them up-to-date and aware of new programs and security aspects. “Some of the learning principles that make you an effective special education teacher help to make sure the staff training is effective,” she said. “We’re doing a good job in training our staff to be strong professionals.

“So many professors at IUP made a real difference. I received a very strong education background at IUP, and it helped me with my graduate work and made me a strong public school teacher. I was an unusual employee when I worked with the Bureau of Prisons because at the time there were very few special ed teachers. I think it gave me a real head start as far as being recognized and having to learn new skills.”

The Bureau has a twofold mission: making sure that the institution is safe, humane, secure, and cost-effective; and giving inmates an opportunity to make positive changes in their lives and be prepared for their release back into the community.

“We’re always working on change and trying to improve the system,” said Veltri. “What we’re focusing on now is more on the inmate’s reentry into society. We’ve provided good programs to help them self-improve. But once they leave us and go to the halfway house and then on to their supervised release, it can be a hard transition for the inmates.”

She said that focusing on that transition, with the help of U.S. Parole and Probation offices and other organizations, help inmates make a successful transition into society.

“I really enjoyed the education aspect,” she said. “I went into the federal prison system trying to make a difference in people’s lives and I thought I could do that through education. I never expected to be any more than a teacher.”

Throughout Veltri’s career with the Bureau, she had the opportunity to try different jobs, and was surprised to learn of the myriad opportunities for growth and career development for people like her who had never studied criminology.

“It’s good for people in education, like public school teachers, to realize that there are exciting careers in places other than public schools,” she said. “There is a real need for strong educators in the federal prisons and prisons in general. It’s a very unique position; it’s not right for everyone. But it gives you an opportunity to make a difference in inmates’ lives and really do something for the community and the public, because hopefully we’re making a difference in their lives.”

The FCI at Greenville has over 1,500 inmates—a medium security facility with 1,300 men, and a minimum security satellite camp with 235 female inmates. Over that is a staff of almost three hundred. Managing an institution of that size, not counting the $26 million budget, carries a lot of responsibility. Veltri calls the people who work there a “small community.” It consists of accountants, nurses, physician’s assistants, chaplains, secretaries, computer specialists and of course, the security force.

“When I started out, we only had about 24,000 inmates,” she said. “Right now, we’re at about 173,000 inmates in the FBP. We have 34,000 staff in 104 institutions all over the United States including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and we’re opening up more. We need a lot of good, strong, professional, qualified, and ethical people to come in our system.” All employees are trained in self-defense and the use of firearms, and are well-prepared to handle emergencies.

There were very few special education teachers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons back in the late 70s. Veltri soon realized that she could be a trailblazer. “For some of the inmates, public schools had failed them,” she said. “To be the first person to be able to teach them to read is just a very rewarding experience.”

Being one of the few women in a traditionally male setting was not necessarily a disadvantage. She noted that when she started, the inmates had the tendency to think she could be easily manipulated and conned. Some of the men would misinterpret her professional caring, and it took a while for her to get used to making them understand she was there to do a job.

“I think being female has some real advantages,” she said. “There’s not the power struggle that there is sometimes between the male staff and the male inmates. They’re more likely to take direction. All those skills I learned in special ed programs about the instruction being firm and fair and consistent really helped me when I began working in prison.”

Eventually she learned her own style and was able to show the inmates and staff that she was a professional, stressing again the need to be firm, fair, and consistent. “If you say ‘No’ to an inmate, they may not like it, but if you give them the right reasons and be firm, fair, and consistent, they appreciate that. I can’t stress those three words enough.”

Being a female in a traditionally male position isn’t the only stereotype Veltri wants to break, noting that there are now about fifteen wardens in the system now.

“People tend to have preconceptions of what a warden is like, and it’s colored by what they see in the media and movies,” she said. “I can’t think of anytime where we are portrayed in a positive image, and it’s a shame. It’s not like the movies. I love to go out and talk with students and try to change that perception. We’re running this little community and we’re asked to be very professional. I hope that more people become interested in this as a career.”

For more information about career opportunities with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, visit www.bop.gov/recruit.html.