Keeping them in line


News-Times intern

Beyond the cold concrete walls and the intimidating locked doors of the Island County Jail in Coupeville, a sweet, sensitive and mild-mannered lady, seemingly out of place in such a forlorn building, goes about doing her work as a jail deputy.

How Jeanne Smart ended up as someone in charge of hard-nosed prisoners in a jail is something that happened both by choice and by chance, she said.

“I found myself divorced after so many years of marriage,” Smart related. “And I didn’t have a job that would allow me to pay all my bills so I started looking around.”

At Edmonds Community College, she found a four-month corrections officer training course, which was perfect for Smart because it would only take a short time to complete and it would yield pretty good pay.

One of her instructors in school handed out applications to all his students each time an opening in a jail facility would come up. When Smart came across the ad for a position in Island County, “I just knew it was mine,” she said.

This was almost 20 years ago, when women in law enforcement careers were just beginning to enjoy equal rights and opportunities. To get the job, Smart had to pass a civil service test and take the oral boards.

In March 1988, Smart officially began her jailer duty. Aware that she had applied for a job that was male-dominated, Smart said that she didn’t care what other people thought because she wanted the job.

“Of course I got a few comments, but it wasn’t anything that bothered me that much,” she said. “I’m not one to let things like that bother me.” Fortunately, most of her co-workers were accepting of her as part of the team. “They all took me in like a little sister, she said. “It has been a really good place to work.”

Years later, Smart still feels the same way about the people she works with, regardless of whether they are part of the old group, who have been in jail service as long as she has been, or the new group, who just recently started.

Smart, who is the longest-serving female corrections deputy in the county jail, shies away from claiming the title “first lady jailer” for the reason that another woman worked at the facility earlier. “Another was here before me,” Smart explained. “She worked here for a few months and then went on to work on the road as a deputy. She was gone before I got here.”

Smart’s entry into the jail department of the Island County Sheriff’s Office paved the way for many other women to follow in her footsteps. She said that not long after she began, a number of other women came in to work in the county jail. Since then, a lot of them have moved on.

Now, there are only six of them in the facility who have been around as long as she has, and three of them are women, including Lt. Pam McCarty, deputies Laurie Prentergast and Cathy Wall.

“The ones who are here are great to work with,” Smart said, referring to her female colleagues. “We’d like to hire more women at this time. I would love to see more women.”

It is one thing to stay in a job and deal with lawbreakers for 20 years now, and another to keep your sanity all throughout. For Smart, that is quite a feat. It wasn’t always easy. Early in her career, Smart would go home and think, “What did I get myself into?” She said sometimes her job became overwhelming but she was always quick to alter her perspective.

“I tell myself, ‘No, this is where I want to be. Just keep going and you’ll get the feel of it. You’re getting your groove!’” she said.

That describes grace under pressure and a woman made of lesser stuff would probably have not lasted as long as Smart has. To survive, she had to learn how to fight, which is something she has instinctively learned within the confines of the jail. However, she didn’t fight with the use of a baton for a weapon. She revealed that her real secret weapon is her voice.

“I have stopped a man charging at me with this voice,” Smart said matter-of-factly. It doesn’t hurt either that she is a woman. From experience, Smart observed that a lot of men, including male inmates, do not want to look like jerks in front of the opposite sex.

“One time, we had an inmate in the holding cell who was very angry,” Smart recalled. “He had been drinking and was, of course, hard to deal with. And as soon as I opened the door, here he comes running at me.”

Suddenly, with “the voice,” she firmly shouted, “Get down on that floor!” The man stopped in his tracks as soon as he heard her. Even Smart was surprised when he started to do what he was told. He fell toward the floor, then she had to make sure she had him under control. So she repeated at the top of her lungs, “Get down on the floor! All the way!” By the time he reached the floor, Smart said, he was crying and was apologizing profusely. “But, he would have hurt me though,” Smart said. “He meant to hurt me.”

Although that incident scared her, the very understanding officer said she did not want to hold it against the guy. “I will never forget that moment,” Smart said, thankful that “the voice” kicked in.

“They don’t hear ‘the voice’ very often but when they do, it’s like ‘boy, don’t ever get her mad’,” Smart said.

She doesn’t mind being in the same building as thieves, thugs, rapists, and the occasional murder suspect. “I don’t look at their crimes. I just have to look at them as a person because if not, then I couldn’t do this job,” Smart said. “In this job, you can’t judge people, and I don’t. It’s not my job to punish them. It’s my job to keep them here and keep them safe until the court is finished with them and they go some place else.”

One time, a fellow she had booked in the past came back on a different charge. The man commented, “Are you still here?” Deputy Smart answered nonchalantly, “Yes. I get paid to be here. Why are you still here?” Things like this make up what Smart describes as the negative part of her job. It’s a sad thing, she said. “I have even booked children of people I have booked 20 years ago.”

Despite that, however, Smart intends to keep on going. “I love the action,” she said. Retirement is obviously not part of her immediate plans.

“I don’t have plans to retire yet,” Deputy Smart said and ever so gently she added, “I’ll know when it’s time to go.”

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 22
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates