Deputy Director Earl X. Wright Retires Following 36-year Career in Criminal Justice
September 02, 2015
Deputy Director Earl X. Wright.
You might say Earl X. Wright was destined for working in prisons.
When Wright was in his early teens in New Orleans, La. he got in trouble a lot in school. He started hanging out with the wrong people, got into fights and eventually got kicked out. His principal once told his mother he would wind up in prison.
“I did wind up in prison, I just ended up on the right side of prison,” Wright jokes.
After getting kicked out of school, he went to live with his grandparents in Los Angeles, Calif. He says moving to a new environment – with a new school, new friends and away from the people who got him in trouble in the first place – was what changed his life forever.
“It made me realize that an individual can change their life, they can change their behavior and stop doing things that get them into trouble,” the 60-year-old said.
Wright, who retired as Deputy Prisons Director of the department on Aug. 31, says it’s a life lesson he’s carried with him throughout his 36-year career with the Washington State Department of Corrections.
Wright moved to Washington after finishing school in California and served in the US Army as an air traffic controller at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. When he left the army, he attended and graduated from St. Martin’s University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice.
His studies helped him land an internship at the Washington State Department of Corrections, an agency with which he’s worked for the rest of his career. He’s held several jobs with the agency including group life counselor, corrections officer, correctional program manager, assistant superintendent and field administrator.
Wright’s first job with the department was working as a group life counselor for juveniles at the former Cedar Creek Youth Camp, which was then run by the Department of Social and Health Services. He spent his days interacting with juvenile inmates, providing counseling and looking out for their safety. When DOC was formed in the 1980s, the youth camp became an adult facility – Cedar Creek Corrections Center.
Wright said the transition from dealing with youths to adults “wasn’t too challenging.” Although physical and mental abilities of the two inmate groups changed, the way he responded to them did not.
“When you’re working with inmates, you have to take the time to interact with them, talk to them to find out what they’re about,” Wright said. “They’ll tell you what they want and what their needs are. You have to treat them like human beings.”
Cly Evans, a hearings officer in the department’s eastern area hearings unit, says treating people with dignity and respect is something he’s always admired about Wright.
He’s also been impressed with Wright’s calmness and collectiveness in the field. Evans recalled a time when he and Wright, who were then both community corrections officers, made a stop at the home of an inmate on Evans’ caseload.
Evans didn’t notice the inmate had stashed a loaded revolver on the mantle over the fireplace. Wright, however, noticed and took it away immediately.
“When we went into the living room, my adrenaline was up and I didn’t even see it,” Evans recalls, noting that neither he nor his partner were armed. “Earl’s spotting and taking the revolver could have easily prevented him or me from being killed.”
Wright also made a lasting impression on his co-workers, even when they weren’t working in close quarters.
Diane Rowles, a community corrections specialist within the department’s Law Enforcement Unit, started working for the department in 2000. For the first few years at the department, she didn’t interact much with Wright, apart from a few casual greetings passing each other in the hall.
But years later, Rowles worked on a team that evaluated policies and procedures on a pilot program at Stafford Creek Corrections Center and the Monroe Correctional Complex involving inmates and volunteers.
Wright had to review the reports Rowles comprised about the program. She said she always found Wright’s feedback fair and considerate.
“He was always thoughtful and he considered your needs as well as overall business needs before making a decision.” Rowles said. “You don’t find that in too many supervisors or co-workers. He makes you feel like your contributions are important and that makes an impact on you.”
As Wright prepares to leave the department, he says he’s gained a lot of insights about criminal justice and wants to see changes in the field in the coming years.
“We certainly need to do business differently than we have in the past,” Wright says, noting that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
He’d also like to see changes in society, including more programs that help strengthen social justice and tackle the cultural factors that drive incarceration rates.
“Washington state is so innovative and forward-thinking. There’s so many opportunities to introduce new concepts and alternatives to incarceration,” Wright said.
“Inmates are often cast into this abyss, a hole of no recovery or reconciliation… They should be able to earn their right to vote back, they should be able to get a job again and not be discriminated against because they are a felon,” he said. “We need to remember what we are in this business for – changing lives and providing opportunities. It’s important not to forget that.”
What’s next for Wright?
He says he looks forward to getting some sleep and not having to wake up at 4:30 in the morning for his commute from Bonney Lake to the department’s headquarters in Tumwater. He’s also looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Anya and his four adult children, JaDawn, Quiana, Tiana, and Dustin and traveling to see his grandchildren. He says having a supportive family is one of the reasons why he’s stayed with the DOC for so long.
“Family is a key ingredient for a successful career,” Wright said. “Working in corrections can be stressful and you need to be able to rely on your family to keep doing what you’re doing. Family can keep you focused and committed and get you through tough times in this business.”