Lynne DeLano, a Force for Inmate Change Retires in September after 37-Year Career
September 11, 2015
Lynne DeLano started out as a correctional officer in a women's prison in South Dakota and quickly rose through the ranks to become a warden and finally the state's first secretary of corrections in 1984 (picture inset). She later became chairwoman of the ISRB in Washington state.
OLYMPIA – Working with inmates for 37 years taught Lynne DeLano a fundamental lesson.
“People can, and do, change,” she said. “You see them, you see that happen.”
DeLano should know. She worked as a correctional officer, a warden and South Dakota’s secretary of corrections during her career.
She’s currently chairwoman of the Washington state Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, ISRB, although not for much longer. DeLano, who is 65, retires Sept. 14. Gov. Jay Inslee has appointed Kecia Rongen to be the new chairwoman.
Working on the ISRB was a good way to cap her career, DeLano said, noting the job calls on her long experience working with inmates every time the board decides whether to keep an inmate behind bars, or set them free.
“There is a huge burden in weighing whether it’s the right decision to release this person, or not to release them,” she said. “You want to make the right decision and you don’t want to see anybody hurt again.”
The review process allows the board to weigh its decisions carefully, and judge whether the inmates have changed, she said.
The ISRB, formerly called the Board of Prison Terms and Paroles, oversees felony inmates who committed crimes before 1984, prisoners sentenced as juveniles to life in prison and certain sex inmates.
Kevin Bovenkamp, DOC’s assistant secretary for health services who’s known DeLano for 20 years, says she’s helped bring a different focus to the ISRB, which has traditionally been pretty conservative.
She helped convince board members that their “job is not to keep people in prison indefinitely. It is to look for a pathway that lets these people reach up, and try to take a step forward to being releasable,” Bovenkamp said.
DeLano notes that “certain people should probably be in prison forever because of the danger they present to public safety,” but added she also sees inmates who’ve turned around their lives.
“You can watch their expressions and the way they describe themselves and what they’ve learned,” she said. “Most of these guys have been in treatment. It’s just encouraging to see that they are getting it, that they’ve had a moment of enlightenment.”
DeLano feels the broader public has many misconceptions about inmates in prison, most of whom don’t commit new crimes after serving their sentences and being released.
“I’ve met some nice people in prison, inmates who made some horrendous, stupid mistakes. You meet some who have a college degree. Some who just got hooked on drugs and did bad things. It’s a variety of people. And they are people.”
Many come from low-income, dysfunctional families and suffered physical, sexual and mental abuse growing up and developed drug and alcohol problems – factors that contributed to them landing in prison, she said.
“On the same hand, there are people with that same background who have chosen not to get involved in crime. So how do we help inmates make better choices,” DeLano said.
That’s what she’s enjoyed most about her career in corrections. Helping people change.
“You’re a teacher, you’re a mentor, you’re the disciplinarian, you’re the cop, you’re the social worker. It’s like being a parent. You’re each of those things depending on the circumstances,” she said.
Bovenkamp said that as long as he’s known DeLano, she’s been an advocate for helping people improve their lives. He noted that earlier in her career she took a break from corrections and spent time in the Peace Corps in Romania with her husband.
“She’s a service person,” he said. “She just believes in helping others whether that’s people in Romania, or people in prison. It’s always been a part of her mission to be out there and help folks.”
DeLano says she has no regrets about her career choice. “It’s interesting, it’s challenging and there’s no day that’s the same,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed it.”
Even so, DeLano’s looking forward to retirement, learning long ago that no matter what your job is, “the world goes on without you.”