By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
That’s the wisdom of 29-year-old James L. Baker, a correctional officer at the Mercer County Jail honored by colleagues and supervisors as the 2013 Corrections Officer of the Year.
Baker, who is married with a family, said he’s always yearned for a career where he thought he could “make a difference in someone’s life” but admits that the job he has is nothing like the job he thought he was getting when he studied criminal justice at Penn State.
“One day I’m a mental health worker, a counselor and the next, I’m a bouncer, breaking up a fight,” he said. The situations he sees inside the jail are “things you wouldn’t expect on the outside. But I know that these are people just like me, but they’ve made a mistake. I try to treat everyone with respect,” he said.
And for that attitude, Baker’s work is appreciated by both his colleagues and supervisors. Warden Erna Craig said Baker “exemplifies what a corrections officer ought to be.”
Baker was honored at the county commissioners meeting last week and Commissioner Chairman John Lechner, who was also in law enforcement at one time, said he thinks it “says a lot” that Baker’s co-workers and supervisors voted unanimously to give him the award.
“That speaks to his character and the kind of person he is and we’re happy to have someone of that caliber working in our jail,” Lechner said.
Baker usually works the afternoon shift, a turn that he thinks is often the busiest. “Everybody’s up and awake and doing their thing,” he said.
Although he treats the inmates with respect, he doesn’t befriend anyone incarcerated, because he’s not allowed. “But I will say we sort of have an understanding, a mutual respect, I guess. You have to have that, to do this job. That allows us to resolve conflicts without getting physical,” he said.
With an inmate population that averages about 250 daily, Baker said his role has been different every day in the five years he’s been there. He works with the male population, he said, and sees the main components of his job as “care, custody and control.”
“My main priority is safety. Not just for the workers but for the inmates too. Sometimes protecting them from other inmates,” he added. Cells are double occupancy and on occasion, fights break out. “But we’re real quick to break those up,” he said.
Baker said he very much appreciates the award and said he thinks it was given to him for his general work ethic. “I’m very proud to work there and of my work. It’s my way of keeping people safe and providing for my family,” he said.
A proclamation presented to Baker cites his “display of exemplary performance in his duties with outstanding work ethics. He is vigilant and detail oriented. He carries great respect for his superiors and co-workers. He is highly professional. He is an initiator and requires little, if any, supervision. He is considered a fair and honest individual and is very loyal to the prison operations.”
As far as his future, Baker said he’d like to stay at the jail, but hopes to advance to a higher rank with more responsibility. When he’s not working, he likes to spend time with his family and hunt and fish.