“Women, in Minnesota in particular, are tough. We’re a tough breed, and I’m proud of that.” —Wendy Roal Warner
If the popularity of Orange is the New Black is any indication, it seems there’s a fascination with life behind bars. Excelsior resident Wendy Roal Warner knows that life. She’s lived it. In fact, she retired as one of the nation’s highest-ranking prison officials.
Roal Warner attended Wayzata High School and studied criminal justice at Gustavus Adolphus College. In her junior year, she interned with the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. There she met Linda Landcaster—one of only a handful of women in the bureau at the time—and was inspired to begin a career in the Bureau. “When I met her…that was it!” says Warner.
After she graduated in 1984, she became a correctional officer in Colorado. In 28 years with the bureau, she’d move 13 times and reach senior executive service status—an elite rank in government agencies. She’d also meet her husband, fellow bureau official Jim Warner, at a federal law enforcement training camp in Georgia.
“When I started, there were so few female role models,” says Roal Warner, who notes there was one female bureau warden working when she joined. “I learned from the men, but men and women lead differently. In prison work, you tend to have a lot of strong alpha men, ex-military. You might look soft, but you’re not. There are a lot of alpha women in the world, too.”
Roal Warner describes a prison as a mini city, and the warden as mayor. Each prison employs law enforcement staff, plus teachers and education professionals, who can help inmates complete a GED or college degree. There’s also food service, medical staff, maintenance teams and more.
“Most movies and shows [about prison] aren’t realistic. The biggest misconception is that prisons are ugly, dirty, nasty, and the staff is corrupt. When you’re in a prison, you know you’re in a prison, but they are clean and orderly,” says Roal Warner. Though federal prisons are professionally run, she says those professionals also know they’re outnumbered.
“We don’t carry guns inside. There are no stun guns, no pepper spray. Munitions are kept in a secure area, and we only access them if we absolutely need to. So you’re always asking yourself ‘How am I going to prepare? What will I do if something breaks out?’ ”“No day is typical…you walk in that door and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Most prison employees will tell you they’re tougher, harder [because of their jobs]”, says Roal Warner. “Females can do amazing things. Women in Minnesota, in particular, are tough. We’re a tough breed, and I’m proud of that.”
“Wendy always performed in an outstanding manner,” says Brian Jett, who worked with Roal Warner in Terre Haute, Indiana. “At the time, we had over 500 lock-down cells. She was over the special confinement unit, sometimes called ‘death row.’ Wendy showed incredible leadership skills, and she had a great heart.” “If you saw her at a local store, when she doesn’t have her game face on, you wouldn’t see a high-ranking prison official,” says James Henry, who served with Roal Warner in Philadelphia. “Wendy has an infectious laugh. She’s hard-working and passionate about her job and her duties. But she cared very much about her staff …she’d give you the shirt off her back.”“There’s no such thing as ‘close enough’ in our jobs—people can lose their lives. The work is often hard, sometimes heroic, always necessary,” says Jett. “If you sat down [with Wendy] for coffee, she’d win you over …but I’ve seen her in battle. She can take care of her own!”
When she retired in September 2012, Roal Warner made her 14th move when she and Jim returned to Minnesota. This summer, they celebrated 20 years of marriage in Excelsior, where they live in Excelsior with dogs Buster and Molly. Wendy serves on the executive board for Gustavus Women in Leadership and volunteers in the Wayzata School District literacy program. Jim and Wendy are also members and volunteers at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church.
“I grew up here. No place has ever filled my heart like Minnesota does,” says Roal Warner, who carted loons, Minnesota décor, and even a stash of wild rice on all her moves. “Everyone thinks were crazy, but we love it here.”
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