Woman warden

Erna Craig, the first female warden of the Mercer County Jail, poses next to an historic door that once separated the jail from the warden's residence at the county's former jail on South Diamond Street in Mercer. Craig said as a child she and a friend used to peek through the door at the inmates. Now the door is a commemorative decoration outside her office. The 138-year-old boilerplate steel door came from the jail built in 1837. The artistic drawings were painted on in 1938 by a man named "Mr. Deas" who was in jail for vagrancy. Craig said since that time, five more members of the Deas family have passed through that same door.

Thirty-two years ago, when she was hired as the first female corrections officer in the Mercer County Jail, Erna Craig was determined to prove that she was tough, not afraid to get her hands dirty and more than capable of making it in a profession long considered to be “man’s work.”

She succeeded.

Craig had been the jail’s deputy warden for nearly eight years under Jeff Gill, who retired earlier this summer. She was officially hired Aug. 12 as the county’s first female jail warden. She was chosen from about 20 applicants.

In years past, it was common practice for the warden’s wife to be the “matron” of the jail, receiving a small stipend for helping her husband deal with female inmates who had “women’s issues” or passing medications to prisoners. Now, Craig’s husband, Paul, who also works in corrections, is one of the staff members she oversees, along with about 300 inmates.

Working within the corrections system is something that almost seems to be an inherited trait, Craig said, boasting that her mother, Shelia Craig, is a 15-year veteran of the regional prison system.

But she didn’t start out dreaming of a career in law enforcement. Still a passionate artist, she attended LaRoche College in Pittsburgh, where she majored in art design.

“I love all types of art mediums. I’m big into stained glass. Right now I’m doing felting. I love anything to do with art,” she said.

But don’t be fooled by the sensitive, artistic side of the 56-year-old Volant area woman.

“I faced some difficult problems in this predominantly male profession, especially in the beginning. I was accused of taking a man’s job. What they didn’t realize is that by what they were doing, it made me tougher. I became one of the guys. They started calling me ‘Ralph,’ a sign I took that they were accepting me,” she said.

Craig prides herself on having compassion, but is firm enough to stand her ground when dealing with some pretty cold, calculating inmates.

“You have to be assertive. You have to face what is happening right there and then,” she said. Many of those she deals with are people at their worst, often going through drug or alcohol withdrawal and facing punishments for crimes of burglaries, arson, murder, rape.

“We get them right off the street and have to deal with all that’s going on. These people are dangerous and fragile at the same time,” she said.

Some of her earliest tasks, she said, was strip searching inmates and breaking up fights.

“I was never afraid,” she said. “My parents raised me to be pretty tough.”

She said she’s only been attacked twice in all the years she worked there.

“One time this guy came after me with a broom. And it was all the other inmates that pulled him off me. I show them respect and they treat me with respect,” she said.

One of the things Craig likes to see under her watch is the “direct supervision” of inmates. Rather than a long “catwalk” where a guard would walk back and forth and keep an eye on inmates in their cells, there is now a guard centrally located where they can see all the inmates they are responsible for all at once.

Craig, who reports to the county’s prison board, which is composed of judges, attorneys, county commissioners and other jail administrators, said her next goal is the creation of an emergency response team.

“I want to be sure we are very well prepared for any situation,” she said.

In addition to the art education, Craig also became an emergency medical technician years ago and spent her summers working in what is now Avalon Springs Nursing Center in Coolspring Township. It was that move that led to  her first position within the jail.

“They were looking for female corrections officers with medical backgrounds. I ended up getting a job here passing out medications with Dr. Ted Yarboro,” she said. At that time she was also taking classes at the University of Pittsburgh for medical illustration.

Most of her day is now spent with administrative tasks, such as the budget, meeting state inspection mandates, reviewing or implementing policy and procedures, and dealing with personnel.

Craig said she likens her job to managing “a small city with 300 criminals. And we put out 1,000 meals a day and we deal with medical appointments, and maintenance issues and housing problems,” she said.

“I love this job. I absolutely love it. I need that kind of excitement,” she said.

When she isn’t working, Craig admits to being a homebody.

“I love to be at home and work in my flower beds. I just got some special hostas I’m growing. I love my home. I feel like I live in a resort,” she said, laughing. “My husband likes to travel and I will go with him, but I’m content at home.”

In the first two weeks she has made some personnel changes, she said. Mac McDuffie has been named deputy warden of security and Joe Reichard was named deputy warden of operations. Terry Morgenstern has been promoted to captain, she added.

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