By Lindsey Coulter
In the 172-year history of the Camden County Correctional Facility in Camden, N.J., men had exclusively filled the position of warden. That changed on Oct. 28, 2016, when Karen Taylor, a long-time corrections professional, was named to lead the facility.
While Taylor always knew she wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement, she wasn’t exactly sure which direction it would ultimately take her. After passing her law enforcement exam, Taylor signed up for corrections positions as well as those within the sheriff’s department and police department. “Corrections called first,” she said.
Taylor first joined the Camden County Department of Corrections in 1997 as a corrections officer before being promoted to sergeant in 2001 and administrative lieutenant in 2007. In 2013, she was made administrative captain, expanding her responsibilities to directing the development and implementation of compliance-related policies and procedures throughout the nearly 1,200-inmate jail. Each of these steps upward was part of Taylor’s larger goal to better serve Camden County inmates, jail staff and community members by seeking positions that allowed her to affect positive change.
Now with the county for nearly 20 years, Taylor has seen the nature of and approach to corrections change significantly throughout her career.
“When I first joined it was more ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ thinking,” Taylor recalled. “Now, we’re seeing a change in the landscape in which treatment has become a huge component of rehabilitation and re-entry.”
In terms of personal improvement, Taylor certainly practices what she preaches. After becoming a correctional officer, she went back to school and earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice as well as a master’s degree in human resources.
Along with her more formal education, Taylor also credits department training as well as previous Warden David Owens for his mentoring and for helping prepare her for the role. “He has been tremendous in making sure I understand the vision of the county and the department and where we’re going,” Taylor said.
Despite the challenges, big and small, Taylor has remained committed to service, and recognized early on that the best way to make change happen within an agency is to be at the top. “As you ascend, you start to realize you can change a lot as you move up through the ranks,” she said.
The drive to keep moving upward and assuming greater responsibility comes from Taylor’s passion for service and community engagement. For example, thanks in part to her efforts, the Camden County Correctional Facility regularly partners with schools for the purpose of not only showing students the impacts of a life of crime, but also to expose them to more positive aspects of the criminal justice system.
To set another good example for the community and for the Camden County Correctional Facility staff, Taylor plans to rely on some of the best on-the-job advice she ever received from one of her own mentors: To remain firm, fair and consistent.
“Individuals are always going to come into your office and try to change your mind, but if you’re firm, fair and consistent, people know where you’re coming from,” she said.
Taylor also noted the unique challenges faced by women aspiring to positions of leadership within the justice and correctional field when compared to their male counterparts.
“I work in a male-dominated field,” Taylor added. “Sometimes, I have to work twice as hard just to show that I know exactly what my male counterparts know. However, the department has given me great opportunity. In 172 years, Camden County has never had a female warden. Now it’s up to me to make sure that I work very hard and am successful.”
While she’s only been in the role a few months, Taylor already calls her time as warden a great experience. She explained that the support has been tremendous, including receiving calls from women across the state to congratulate her. “It’s a great feeling,” she added.
Speaking in particular to other women interested in pursuing correctional and justice careers, Taylor stresses preparation, hard work and earning credentials.
“Once [male colleagues] realize you are a valuable part of the criminal justice system and that you bring something to the table, the respect comes,” Taylor added. “You have to make sure they understand you are a leader and that you have the qualities to make sure they are safe. At the end of the day that is my role, to make sure every individual in this facility is safe.”
Read more of this article in the January/February issue of Correctional News, available now.