Correctional lieutenant puts game face on shift after shift

Correctional Lt. Elizabeth Wagner of Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Correctional Lt. Elizabeth Wagner of Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Montville - Correctional Lt. Elizabeth Wagner never forgot the advice of a training academy instructor who told the new recruits they need to put on their "game face" every time they walk into a prison.

"You don't want to make yourself look vulnerable to an offender," said Wagner, 56, who prefers to be called Beth. "You may be shaking in your shoes, but they're not going to know it."

After 18 years on the job, Wagner's confident demeanor comes naturally. She has been assigned for the last four years to the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville, a men's prison. She spent the first 14 years of her career at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic, which is the state's only prison for women.

Wagner, who grew up Georgetown, Mass., came to southeastern Connecticut while married to a Navy sailor stationed at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. In 1997, at age 38, she found herself divorced with two children and a need to support herself. She had done security work at the Navy Exchange and auxiliary police work for the Town of Groton, so when a friend suggested she look into a job with the state Department of Correction she applied. She took a general knowledge exam, went onto a waiting list and got the call about a year later. She graduated from the training academy and was assigned to York.

"My first day of on-the-job-training, I met some people in restrictive housing that were a bit frightening," she said during an interview in a conference room at Corrigan. "I had to step back a little. When you see the real deal, it's intimidating."

Wagner said if you can be a parent, you can be a correction officer. Inmates want consistency, routine and structure, and success is gauged in small doses, she said.

"If an inmate approaches me and wants something I'm not going to give them, I tell them, 'No,' ''she said.

Correctional staff perform their duties in a grim environment outside the public eye and rely on one another to keep a safe environment. They are well trained, Wagner said.

"In corrections, there's no gun strapped to our waists," she said. "We are on the floor with them all day long. We trust each other to protect each other. When we say, 'I have your back,' we mean it. It's a trust factor."

Nine years into her career, Wagner was looking for something to motivate her and took the exam to become a lieutentant. The DOC does not have a sergeant's position. She was promoted in 2007, and the new role gave her a chance to see "the bigger picture."

"I'm supervising staff (who are) supervising inmates, and my mental picture is a bit bigger," she said. "During a situation in a unit, staff are handling the moment. You're handling them handling the moment."

She was "chasing" a first shift position when she transferred to the men's prison four years ago. She said in her experience, women prisoners are more challenging to female staff than men.

"From the male standpoint, maybe they feel like it's weak to challenge a female," she said. "On the whole, they are fairly respectful to me. Women are nurturing by nature. We have the ability to de-escalate a situation."

Corrigan Warden Antonio Santiago said Wagner is a leader who is respected by staff.

"During the course of her employment she has distinguished herself as an individual who is thorough, efficient and has the ability to make sound decisions on a consistent basis," Santiago wrote in an email. "These traits illustrate the type of leader she has become as well as her dedication to the mission of the Department of Correction. She sets the bar high for herself, which in return earns her the respect and commitment from her fellow staff members and subordinates."

The job is not for everyone, Wagner said. She mentioned going into restaurants, scanning its occupants to see if any former inmates are there, and sitting with her back to the wall.

"You lose your naivete, and I miss that," she said.  

k.florin@theday.com

Twitter: @KFLORIN

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