TOWNSHIP OF FINDLEY — When Erna Craig started working at Mercer County Jail in 1981 as the first female correctional officer, she knew she would have to work hard to earn the respect of her male colleagues.

Craig succeeded in that, and more.

Now warden, Craig announced her retirement effective June 1 after 41 years of blazing a trail for other women as the first female correctional officer in Mercer County Jail’s history, the first female counselor, captain, transition team leader, assistant manager and the first female goalkeeper.

“I walked into a male-dominated workplace, and it wasn’t the easiest thing,” Craig said. “The guys said, ‘Don’t think we’re here to protect you. I knew I had to prove myself.

So she worked very hard and the men ended up calling her Ralph. She became “one of the guys”.

Before Craig was hired in 1981, the warden and his family lived in the jail-connected residence across the square from Mercer’s courthouse. The warden‘s wife was considered the matron and looked after the inmates, of whom there were few at the time.

When Craig started in 1981, she was the first female employee at the prison, which had one inmate. After Craig was hired, the prison began to accommodate more inmates.

When Craig was hired, two judges resided on the Mercer County Court of Common Pleas bench, Judge Albert E. Acker and Judge John Q. Stranahan.

And they weren’t exactly welcoming.

“They didn’t want me in the cell block around the male prisoners,” Craig said.

On the first day he was hired, the prison population was 18 people, down from 154 on Wednesday morning.

“People were like, ‘Why are you hiring a woman, you’re taking jobs away from a man,'” former Mercer County Comptroller Tom Amundsen said. “That’s how times have slowly changed.”

Now Craig said there are more female correctional officers than male on some shifts.

“Now there are times when all women are in the job, so that’s how many women are involved in this career,” she said.

Craig is married to Paul Rea, who retired from prison as a lieutenant four years ago. He now works as an informant at the Mercer County Courthouse.

Her plans in retirement are to first figure out what she’s going to do, including cleaning her house and traveling. Both of her parents live in Mercer.

“I’m going to spend a lot of time with our family, just enjoying life and relaxing,” she said.

She also has a lot of artistic projects. She paints, works on stained glass and is a master gardener.

Craig went to art school, starting out in arts and graphic design. In college, she took a course in body building anatomy and worked in medical illustration with a cadaver. She then went to school to become an emergency medical technician.

“At that time the prison was looking for an officer with medical training and I was working for an ambulance service at the time,” Craig said. “It all added up.”

Craig said that in 41 years at the prison, several aspects of how corrections operates, including the development of written policies and procedures, have changed.

“There was a little booklet for inmates,” Craig said. “There were very few written policies and procedures, but over time we have evolved a lot.”

And Craig said the Mercer County Corrections Commission is open to modernization and other changes.

“I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of good people,” Craig said as she thanked the prison board recently. “I think you allowed us to make a lot of changes and improvements without any interference.”

The experience of running a prison has given Craig valuable insight into the correctional system. Craig said she believed it was impossible that all inmates in the system were guilty.

She went on to tell a story about when she was a young girl, and she was friends with the warden’s daughter and used to come to the residence attached to the prison.

“I remember we were peeking through the big steel door that separated the residence,” she said. “We watched the inmates cook and made faces at them. I think I was a kid and here I am responsible for them now.

She now feels completely different.

“I still live by the fact that they’re not all bad,” Craig said. “Something good and positive could be done for all of them.”

And she passed that philosophy and everything she learned over the past 41 years on to her assistants and staff.

“I personally think at every stage of my career I’ve been successful, but I wouldn’t have been so successful without the people who worked with me,” Craig said. “I am very proud of how our operations have ended over the past few years. It’s because of all of them.

And she thinks the prison board would do well to announce one of their deputies, Mac Macduffie, or Joe Reichard, as her successor. Applications for the position are being accepted now and a replacement is expected to be announced on March 1.

Although the county’s first female director won’t retire until June 1.

“It was a good career,” Craig said. “It was rewarding and I loved my whole career.”

Follow Melissa Klaric on twitter @HeraldKlaric or email her at [email protected]

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