Tammy Ferguson positively beams when she has the chance to show someone around her workplace.
From the hallways and green lawns to the state-of-the-art security and the razor wire, she is proud of every inch.
Ferguson is the new acting superintendent at Benner state prison. Nothing about her says “warden,” but the state Department of Corrections no longer uses that word anyway.
Ferguson, a longtime DOC employee with a track record of high-profile leadership positions such as chief of security and deputy superintendent for centralized services, has a wide smile, but she is also businesslike and take-charge. Her office is bright and cheerful, belying the buzzed-in entrances, metal detectors and linebacker-sized guard at the desk just outside. “Stop, smile, breathe” is the curlicue-script motto on the wall in her outer office.
“Do you want a tour?” she asked happy for the chance to show off her 1-year-old baby.
Ferguson was part of the team that opened Benner, the DOC’s newest facility, right in Rockview state prison’s backyard. It accepted the first prisoners in April 2013.
Then a deputy superintendent, Ferguson became the interim acting superintendent under her predecessor, David Pitkins, when DOC removed Marirosa Lamas as the head of both Benner and Rockview in December, one of the changes made in the wake of the Omar Best rape case. Best was convicted in May of the July 2013 rape of a clerical employee at Rockview.
Today, Ferguson is one of only seven female superintendents in the 26 state prisons.
“We are a minority,” she said. “A lot of (the others) have been my mentors.”
She gives as much credit to the employees below her as to the leadership above.
“We have an amazing staff,” said Ferguson, who believes Benner is a flagship, the model for what DOC prisons can become as they change with times and technology. That sense comes through as she shows off the control center.
“It’s like the starship Enterprise,” she said, pointing out the glass-enclosed, hyper-secure hub where every door and camera can be controlled. She is also proud to point out that one of the officers on the bridge of her Enterprise is a woman.
There are other touches to the Benner campus of nine housing units and more buildings than Ferguson herself can list. Each speaks to someone who wants to change the way prisons are viewed: as places to warehouse bad people until their sentences are up.
In the wide interior courtyard that connects the buildings, inmates at the medium-security facility move freely from building to building at their approved times, like students between college classes. Flowers from Rockview’s greenhouses are tucked into corners and around posts.
The inmates seem to respond positively.
“Hey, Ms. Ferguson!” one inmate named Scarborough says as the superintendent walks into the gym where the men are divided into teams in a kickball tournament. He wants to talk about the problem he had been having with missing towels in the prison’s laundry facility, a huge industrial complex that does outside work, including some for Penn State.
She knows what he is talking about right away, telling him she was just talking to his unit manager and that she heard things were going much better. Scarborough almost glows with the praise.
Other inmates greet her politely, joke with her, hold doors — just like the corrections officers do. Ferguson said one of her goals is to create a vision, part of that being to never lose sight of the fact that she wants these men to go back to the world better and more able to cope than they came in.
She wants to give them the same tools, the same outlets, whether at gym on a treadmill, in church at prayer or at work earning a living at a trade they might have learned at Benner. The prison has a barber school in addition to its own in-house vocational school.
There is still more on her agenda. Ferguson wants to put a work program in place, like the one at Rockview that lets inmates provide labor to municipalities and nonprofits to give back to the community. She also hopes to see a program to let inmates care for canines being trained to serve the state police.
But it hasn’t all been petunias and kickball for the first year.
The prison has seen an inmate attack guards with a snow shovel in December. One inmate was recently in court for assaulting his transgender lover, while DOC asked Centre County Court for permission to force feed another inmate on a hunger strike. But all in all, Ferguson said the number of problems has been low.
“The activation of SCI Benner Township or any new facility, is a process. Through the capable and skilled leadership of Superintendent Tammy Ferguson, the facility will continue to move forward in a positive direction,” Executive Deputy Secretary Shirley Moore Smeal said.
When rocky moments strike, Ferguson said, she is happy to have Rockview next door.
“It’s like she’s our matriarch,” she said of the elder facility, one of the oldest still in use. “Benner is like the little infant child, still getting our walking feet.”