In the spring edition of the union magazine, the Public Employee Quarterly, the services of correction and juvenile correction member activists are spotlighted in a piece called Profiles in Courage. Members Tanya Serrell (Dept. of Youth Services), Rick Basinger (DR&C) and Judith Onyekwere (DR&C) talk about their dedication to their work, the need for union rights to be able to effectively do their jobs and the trials and tribulations that come with their courageous professions. Read their stories below:
Tanya Serrell from Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility has not had an easy road to her career in Juvenile Corrections, but it nevertheless didn’t stop her from becoming the Juvenile Correctional Officer of the Year for 2018.
For Serrell, Juvenile Corrections is actually her second career. She began as an Ironworker for Laborers Local 500 of the Ironworkers of Toledo where she was also chief steward for 12 years. But after 20 years on the job and becoming sober, she went back to college in Criminal Justice and began exploring other career options, including working for the State of Ohio.
In 2001, her career began in earnest at Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility in the Columbus area. Serrell describes the beginning of her career as “wonderful” but within a couple years, an incident between Serrell and a youth got her in trouble and landed her on the street for 15 days. She describes the incident as many employees do who are assaulted on the job: “I was attacked, and I defended myself,” she said. She was disciplined and came back to work, thinking that was the end of it.
But years later, in 2005, overzealous lawyers began to scrutinize all of DYS’s operations and records and Serrell’s case was one of dozens that got sent to a prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office in Delaware, Ohio indicted 12 DYS employees that year, Serrell included, for a range of felony offenses. That put Serrell out on administrative leave for an entire year.
But she and her attorney persevered, and after that year, the judge all but threw out her charges. She ended up pleading to a minor misdemeanor, and soon was back to work.
While the felony charges were thrown out, the ordeal still took a toll on Serrell. “When I went back to work I struggled. I was mad,” she explained. “It was on TV and CNN and my family was calling. It was in all the newspapers. People recognized me at the store. It was the worst year of my life,” she said.
Although most of the senior administrative staff had changed at DYS, it didn’t help that DYS never mentioned the incident. Nor did they apologize. But Serrell took the high road and believes that the incident made her a better officer. “It helped me. It really did,” she said.
What got her through those times more than anything was the kids she takes care of. “The whole time I was going through that I didn’t let that stop me from helping those kids. That’s why I do it,” she said triumphantly. “I enjoy what I do.”
“It was truly an honor receiving this award, especially when I look back on my tenure with the agency. All the different people that have come and gone, I just never gave up,” said Serrell. “It was like I was in a dark tunnel, but a light was shining brighter and brighter.”
Now Serrell trains the young DYS employees. She tells them the most important lessons are to be “fair, firm and consistent,” tell the truth and don’t treat anyone differently than anyone else. “It’ll make your job easier in the long run,” she said.
Rick Basinger, a veteran Correction Officer of 26-and-a-half years from Allen-Oakwood, was one of 25 officers around the state named as Correction Officer of the Year recently. He currently works out of the Ohio Penal Industry office at AOCI.
“It’s been a journey. I’ve seen quite a few changes,” said Basinger. Allen and Oakwood consolidated in 2004 after the Lima Correctional Institution was shuttered. Basinger admits the closure made things more difficult, and it took the Corrections “family” at those institutions quite some time to get back to being a cohesive unit. “Finally, everybody is starting to mesh. We’re back to being a family again. But it was tough going through those changes,” he said.
Basinger also acknowledges that the field of Corrections in general is also changing. He says there are several factors at play. “It’s a combination of things, younger offenders that don’t have the mentality and they just don’t care anymore. There’s also a difference in the officers coming in. They see things much differently than the old timers, like myself, do. It makes for some interesting, but motivating, challenges,” he said.
Basinger has a direct influence on the younger staff by teaching part of the Advanced Correction Officer training. He says he always addresses each new recruit directly on the last day with advice, not just on surviving in Corrections, but thriving. “I tell them, you have to be focused because of where you work, and you have to look out for one another. I remind them, you’re going to make mistakes—but don’t focus on those. Focus on the good things. Don’t take stuff home. And most importantly: learn to be able to laugh at yourself,” said Basinger.
Judith Onyekwere from Franklin Medical Center is the first woman from an African country to be named Correction Officer of the Year at FMC and only the second African to be hired in a custody position. She has been with the department for 12 years and came here with her husband in 2004 from Nigeria. She and her husband both started careers as Correction Officers at FMC (formerly Corrections Medical Center) in 2006.
Onyekwere has been a union steward for the chapter through three union presidents and recently became a member of the chapter’s executive board.
One of the things she loves about FMC is how diverse the workforce is. “Not only are we represented by six continents, we have 46 countries represented as well,” said Onyekwere, of the workforce at her facility. She says that kind of diversity means you’re constantly learning. “Diversity is very important. It makes it more interesting when you get to know what the next country has to offer. I’ve learned so much from Franklin Medical Center because of it,” she said.
In a video by the Ohio Dept. of Rehabilitation and Correction, she explained how she applied for several jobs with the state over a decade ago and didn’t know what she was getting into with Corrections. Today, she’s an entry officer and is the first face people see when they come to the prison.
She’s thankful that her husband is also a Correction Officer. “He knows what I’ve been through for the day. I don’t need to explain,” she said. Her daughter also keeps her in check and reminds her to leave work at work.
Only two women were nominated this year as Correction Officers of the Year for their institutions. Onyekwere says she’s humbled by being picked as one of those, especially since one of the them, Michelle Miller from Dayton Correctional Institution, actually won Correction Officer of the Year statewide. “There were just two of us picked and one of us won the whole thing? I’m so happy,” she said.
Her advice for young women entering the Corrections profession? “Keep your head up. When I started it was exhilarating. It’s a scare to begin with. But for the younger ones, this is a promising career. Just keep your head up and do the right thing. And remember, hard work pays off,” said Onyekwere.