After 35 years helping CDCR fulfill its mission, Connie Gipson is looking forward to the chapter: retirement.
The Director of the Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) moved up through the department after starting on the medical side.
Gipson sat down with Inside CDCR to discuss her career, changes she seen and the culture shift.
A discussion with DAI Director Connie Gipson
For people who don’t know, can you explain how you started your career with CDCR?
I came in as a medical technical assistant, a position the department no longer has. At that time, it was an individual who was either a licensed vocational nurse or a registered nurse with peace officer status. You essentially provided health care to the population that we serve. Subsequently, I promoted my way up from there. The first 18 years of my career were done in health care.
In 2005 and 2006, I had the opportunity for training and development assignment to do Correctional Business Manager II. It was really good. Then I prepared myself to study to take the Facility Captain’s exam, to get on the list to eventually get hired at Wasco State Prison in the security side of the house.
How difficult did you find going from the medical to the security side?
Very difficult. I like challenges and after 18 years, I knew health care at that time. It was very comfortable but I’m the type of person who likes to continue being challenged. I like to grow and learn. So I wanted to be a captain for that reason. I knew it was going to be a challenge because here I was having to learn a side of the operations that I really had very little knowledge, if any, of. Folks questioned (if I) had the right to be in that spot.
They wanted to know if I had (connections) and couldn’t believe I had been a peace officer since I came in. They thought I just dropped in as a captain as a peace officer. That was inaccurate. But also, in order for me to be successful, I had to be open to understanding I’m comfortable with what I know and smart enough to seek the information for things I don’t know.
I also had to understand people who held lower rank than I did as a captain, could teach me my job.
When I’m talking to sergeants and lieutenants, what makes a true leader is understanding and not getting caught up on your title and letting ego in the room. To be successful, you have to recognize there are people who have the information and welcome them to the table.
I learned the rules violation report, the rules disciplinary process, from correctional officers. I had to be open to that, so it was a big challenge.
Eventually, when I became the warden at CSP-Corcoran, it was that captain’s role that really prepared me to be a warden.
What year were you appointed warden?
It was in 2011 when I became acting warden. It took two years be appointed because I had some challenges along the way. But I was eventually appointed in July of 2013. CSP-Corcoran is very near and dear to my heart and consider it my home prison. It was very exciting to have that opportunity to really understand the magnitude of that role. It is a huge role, very similar to this one, because you realize the buck stops with you. That’s a lot of pressure. Everyone is looking to you for guidance but you have resources. You can call your peers and talk to those who have walked this journey before you to learn and get information.
What changes have you seen in 35 years working at the department?
When I came in, I started at California Institution for Women working with the women and I did that for nine years. It wasn’t as big of a focus on rehabilitation as we have now and reentry and really working to prepare folks for their eventual release back into our community.
Additionally, over those 35 years, we experienced a period of severe overcrowding. I remember being at Wasco in health care and we had incarcerated individuals living in gyms and on dayroom floors. (Those areas) were triple bunked and barely enough room for the custody staff to walk down and provide observation or supervision.
To see us now, we have space and there’s huge emphasis and support from the administration, legislature and community at large. Really, should someone be defined by the worst act they may have committed and is there such a thing as redemption? The majority of those in our care and custody are coming back home. (Now we are) able to be an appropriately funded resource to give our population the tools they need to be successful on reentry back into the community.
What I also see for our staff is the department’s focus on employee wellness. Law enforcement is a stressful career. Our staff have lives outside of this job (but it can be a) stressful and sometimes violent environment. We want our staff to get through this journey healthy and to understand the value they bring to this organization. I’m so happy to see over the last several years this focus on employee wellness.
Trauma-informed wellness efforts
It used to be if a staff member was assaulted by an incarcerated person, you would see them come back to work the next day because it was a pride thing. Where now it’s about (learning how) the trauma will impact you, wearing on your soul.
Now we have a focus on employee wellness and ensuring we have a well-trained, healthy, diverse workforce.
When I came in, you were given, as a brand new staff member, the keys to your area and told, “We wish you well.” Now we’re doing onboarding for staff.
Now we have correctional officers in the job shadowing program so when they get to their institutions, we’re filling that gap.
I’m so proud to have been a part of an organization that has made such significant changes.
Speaking of employee wellness, how do you maintain work-life balance?
I am very poor at work-life balance and is one of the reasons I’m excited about retirement. The most exciting thing is being able to sleep at night. I’ll be able to turn this off, which can become very challenging the higher you go in this organization.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak to cadets before they graduate, talking about keeping those connections you had before showing up at the academy 13 weeks ago. Those friends and families you hold near and dear to you, the hobbies you enjoy to do, and when it’s time to take your vacation, separate off. When you go home at night, engage with your family and friends. Really work toward that work-life balance.
I’m also a realist and understand the higher you go up in this organization, you have to make an intentional act to do so. I’ve never heard anybody say, “I wish I worked more.”
At the end of the day, you can’t serve this agency well if you’re not taking care of yourself (such as) intentionally scheduling time away from work and staying connect with families, friends and loved ones.
Why is the California Model important for the department?
The science of corrections is very dynamic. The department should always be looking to identify best practices and how we can continue to move forward. The California Model is really about how to create a work environment that supports the wellness of those who work there and support the rehabilitation of the population we serve.
Many times our staff are so caught up with the daily grind of the job. Or, the population comes in with a preconceived notion of what law enforcement means. So, how do we break down those barriers? Those silos? At the end of the day, this is our community and we all have a right to be treated with dignity and respect.
The population (needs to understand) the punishment was the loss of liberty in the sentence the court gave you. Our job, when you come into our care and custody, is to prepare you for your release. It’s getting our staff to understand the value in the impact they have on changing people’s lives.
I want to make it that granular. Because I came to work that day, I made a positive impact on someone’s life. We hear about it all the time from formerly incarcerated people. They will say, this person is the one who told me, “You’re better than that. I’m so grateful to that counselor or correctional officer who sat me down to tell me this.” That’s when the lightbulb clicked.
The California Model is about total environmental change. It’s getting our staff to understand the population we serve are not less-than. Staff and the population need to feel valued and heard.
California Model isn’t replicating Norway
When I went to Norway in 2019, they were very transparent in their process. When I visited, I believe they had 4,000 people incarcerated. But to effect this change, it took them 10 years for it to transition into where they are today.
This isn’t about replicating Norway but asking how we can do California better to benefit the population we serve and the staff (as well as) our stakeholders, internally and externally. Our department is laying the groundwork for generational work.
If Norway tells us it took them 10 years, for an organization as large as ours to transition over, we know we are talking generations. I’m so happy the department is in and we’re going to do the work to get us started.
Regarding staff and population diversity, can you talk about GARE and your involvement and what it means?
About 2017, former Deputy Director Ralph Diaz was walking the floor at headquarters. He stopped and said he’d like me to think about what personal goals I had. Immediately I said the diversity of our staff because the majority of the population we serve are brown and black. I recognized and saw it when I was a captain.
I would walk Wasco and would hear black incarcerated folks comment when I walked the yard because that was not something they normally saw, a black female captain. It was somebody they could relate to.
Diaz said the department was looking to be a part of GARE, the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. I begged to be a part of that and was fortunate to be selected to be one of the original members. As I transitioned into this role (as DAI Director), I couldn’t do it full time anymore so I stepped away.
Then I was excited to come back a couple of years ago as their executive sponsor. In order for CDCR to succeed, there are a couple of things we need to recognize. When we are talking about rehabilitation, (a more diverse staff) has the seed of potential, the possibility, from someone who looks like them.
Connie Gipson: ‘Looking through an equity lens’
With all the work being done by CDCR and CCHCS, we are looking at how to increase our diversity. We want to be an employer of choice and understand we value diversity and different experiences people bring to the table. That’s what makes this organization great.
We’re now looking at our policies and hiring practices through an equity lens. We are doing a lot of groundbreaking work.
I hear so many people, over the course of my career, who say I inspire them because they never thought they would see a black person, or a woman, get there. Our staff needs to see that because then they think, “There’s a possibility I can do that as well.”
We have to value the differences in each other.
What advice to give to someone trying to promote in the department?
First, you have to be willing to put yourself out there. You need to show up and show out. You need to be a part of different experiences and work groups. I have been told I would never pass this exam or promote or get a certain job. There will always be the naysayers (but) think (of that) conversation as background noise. You get to decide how your career goes. Let the naysaying fuel you more. There are people I want to go back to and say their criticism propelled me further. Let it push your drive.
To be a black girl from the streets of Compton, where my family still lives, and get to where I am, is amazing. Is it unique to Connie Gipson? Absolutely not. You can do it too. Put in the work and don’t let yourself get caught up in the negative conversations. Be bold enough to put yourself out there.
Express your interest in being a part of things that are outside of your comfort zone. At Wasco, I volunteered for everything. Two former wardens let me get involved in the custody side so when I decided to go for the captain position, I knew I could do it because I already had six years of experience.
Anything else you’d like to add? Any final thoughts?
For the staff who continue to move this agency forward, thank you. This is a large organization and very complex. Sometimes we lose sight to pause and see how much we’ve accomplished. That’s because of the staff who show up here every day, despite our critics and naysayers. They are here every day to do honest, state work.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications