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Susan Poole '66 | Criminal Justice Reform From the Inside

“I realize that for people who have committed crimes, the law determines the consequences. What I do in my work is to create an environment where those who desire to change have the opportunity.” Dubbed Captain Sunshine by her friends, Susan Whitney Poole ’66 has spent her career working within the prison system. Since her official retirement from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) 20 years ago, Susan has acted as a Criminal Justice Consultant, primarily with the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). NIC is a federal agency established to provide assistance to strengthen state and local correctional agencies by creating more effective, humane, safe and just correctional services. Her work entails technical assistance and providing training across the country on Executive Leadership Development for Women in Corrections and Gender Informed Practices in the Management of Women Offenders. “When people ask if I believe in rehabilitation, I say no. Rehabilitation is returning something to a former state. What we provide is an opportunity for habilitation, opportunities for offenders to be whole and safe, perhaps for the first time in their lives."
Susan’s long career in criminal justice began by accident. After moving from South Carolina to California with her husband, who worked in the military, she took a temporary job as an assistant teacher at a southern California prison. Her supervisor, recognizing her grounded and compassionate approach, recommended she apply for a permanent position. This began Susan’s 30 year career in the CDCR, the last 13 of which she spent as a prison warden. “I never intended to have this as a career, but I found it was a place I could use all my talents and skills in helping people have hope about the future.” After retiring from her work in the CDCR, Susan began work as a federal contractor, with a primary focus on training in gender informed practices. “Our systems were designed for men, but there is this opinion that equal means the same and it doesn’t...Through research, we discovered that women’s personal histories, including abuse and their pathways into the criminal justice system is different, and consideration of the differences in response to custody and supervision and other differing realities of the two genders can result in better outcomes for both. For example, when women come to prison, there is a relationship to their children that doesn’t exist to the same extent for their male counterparts. Addressing that mother/child relationship can help to break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration.” Susan insists on recognizing the difference, and is driven by the belief that changing the way we treat women who are incarcerated can have wide ranging effects. “It makes a difference in the lives of these women, and perhaps their children and perhaps the future of our communities. That’s my hope.” 

Susan’s time at Friends Seminary has informed her life and career. “Friends reinforced my core values and one of those was about social responsibility. Silence gave me a chance for introspection and to realize all the things I need to know, I had within me.” Susan hopes to bring about a world where gender-informed practice in correctional facilities is the norm. “It’s a long, hard battle, just like equal pay for women. I’m going to work inside out, not the outside in. I am going to be all I can be and do all I can and not wait for a better outcome. To change the culture, you have to be patient, and you don’t give up who you are in the process. It’s your responsibility to positively influence the culture. 'Why should I bother?' should never be the answer. We should all care, as the future of our communities depends on it.” 
Friends Seminary — the oldest continuously operated, coeducational school in NYC — serves college-bound day students in Kindergarten-Grade 12.

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