Even as a baby sitter, Wendy Hobbs knew how to take charge. Her cousins would try to leave dirty dishes in the sink, but Hobbs wouldn’t have it.
“She was always the one telling kids what to do,” says her mother, Louise Sparks, with a chuckle.
As warden of the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland for the past 16 years, Hobbs projects authority — a trait that comes naturally. Growing up in Halifax County, she was part of a large extended family. Her mother is one of 22 children, and the warden has numerous cousins, many of whom still live in Halifax.
When Hobbs began working for the state Department of Corrections 26 years ago, she was one of only a handful of women in positions of authority. “I got put on a lot of committees,” she remembers, noting that it was necessary to speak up to be heard. “Guys will talk all over you. They learned they had to answer me.”
Tall, with broad shoulders and a confident expression, Hobbs, who turns 50 this month, also commands respect from inmates. She says that only three have disrespected her to her face in her career. One woman, who was already in segregation for bad behavior, wouldn’t stop cursing at Hobbs and even wrote, “I hate the warden” in blood on the wall.
“I told her, for every curse word you tell me, you’ll get 30 days,” the warden says, noting that the woman stayed in segregation for about six months. Another inmate was isolated for an hour after cursing Hobbs, returning to the general population convinced that it wasn’t worth the trouble to disrespect the warden.
“They know me well enough to know what I find acceptable,” Hobbs says. “I really haven’t had anybody that tried to run a game on me. I treat them the same way I want to be treated.”
On the Other Side
The Goochland prison, set off River Road West among rolling hills, has had five wardens, all female, since it opened 75 years ago. Beginning with Elizabeth Kates and right through to Hobbs, the wardens have overseen what was once the only women’s prison in Virginia.
Hobbs has a reputation among inmates for being fair and empathetic, although some say they don’t see her very often on grounds. “She’s pleasant,” says Alechia Stone, who has served six years for forging checks. “She always speaks. I feel personally that she could interact with us more.”
The warden says that she tries to get around the prison and visit inmates twice a week, going to the dining hall, the gym or other places, but she notes that there’s “only one of me and more of them.”
LaTonia Beverly, incarcerated since 1998 on a manslaughter conviction, is a cosmetology student at the prison and often does the warden’s hair (her usual request: shampoo, conditioning, set in rollers).
“I would say before she’s the warden, she’s a woman,” Beverly says. “She takes account of all those issues.”
Despite being in an institution, inmates have some freedoms. They can decorate their living quarters with curtains (often made with bed sheets) and purchase their own jeans with money earned from their work-release jobs, rather than wearing clothes issued by the state. But it isn’t the Holiday Inn. The inmates’ most common complaints are the lack of air conditioning and the age of the buildings.
But in general, inmates say there are few squabbles and fights, and most occur between inmates, not among prisoners and staff.
“Everybody just pretty much wants to go home,” inmate Pam Webber says. “I don’t fight the program anymore. It’s their world. I just want to go home.”A wife and mother, the warden allows inmates to make unscheduled phone calls home when a family emergency arises and has instituted a program called Mothers Inside Loving their Kids, or MILK. Participants, who have taken parenting classes, are allowed an extra full-day visit with their children every three months, in addition to regular visitation periods.
Hobbs became a mother 10 years ago at age 39, after suffering miscarriages. Reggie was born while his parents lived on prison grounds. As a toddler, he saw inmates working in their yard.
“As he got older, we explained to him, when people do bad things, they go to prison,” Hobbs says.
As a sociology student at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Hobbs thought she would work with youth, but a 1978 internship instead took her to the federal prison in Petersburg.
“They slammed the gates and the doors, and I said, ‘This is not for me,’ ” Hobbs says. Then a second internship came along, this time at Chatham Correctional Unit No. 15 in Pittsylvania County. “I liked it,” she says. “I felt like I could make a difference.”
Taking a full-time position at Chatham in late 1978 that melded counseling and corrections-officer duties, Hobbs started her unexpected career.
Some family members were surprised when she took the job. “They really thought I had lost my mind,” Hobbs says. “They were very apprehensive, concerned, [asking], ‘Are you going to get killed? Are you going to carry a gun?’ I never thought I would end up working in a prison.” Hobbs, who favors conservative business suits, does not carry a weapon.
Moving up the ladder, changing jobs every two or three years, Hobbs became assistant warden in Goochland in 1989. She was named warden two years later, the youngest person and the first black woman to hold the post at VCCW.
Hobbs oversees an average population of 574 prisoners, plus more than 275 workers, most of whom are employed directly by the prison. She is one of 42 wardens and superintendents (who head smaller facilities) in the state correctional system; nine are women.
The inmates are largely nonviolent criminals, and the most prevalent crimes are larceny, fraud or drug offenses. Hobbs says 85 percent of prisoners at VCCW have substance-abuse problems, although she doesn’t limit that definition to drug addicts or alcoholics. Some women got caught up in the “drug lifestyle,” selling but not using drugs, or helping a boyfriend or a husband with illegal activities, she says.
The motivation often is, “I love this man, and I want him to stay here [with me],” Hobbs says. As of March, 274 VCCW inmates were enrolled in the Substance Abuse Treatment Community, a program at several state prisons that helps inmates overcome drug addiction.
Inmates at Goochland stay busy; if they don’t, or can’t because of medical reasons, they are transferred, Hobbs says. When she came to the prison in 1989, it had a psychiatric wing, but no longer. Central Virginia Corrections Center for Women, in Fluvanna County, now houses disabled and pregnant inmates, as well as those who require higher security.
“The women have this yearning to learn,” Hobbs says, and most of them want to stay as busy as possible. In addition to GED and skills classes, or therapy if they are on the drug-treatment track, most inmates have at least one job. “If you cannot work, we will have to transfer you back to Fluvanna,” the warden says.
Virginia Correctional Enterprises — a branch of the state’s Corrections Department, which oversees prison industries such as the manufacture of license plates and office furniture — runs a laundry on grounds that cleans 10 million pounds of linens a year, employing 92 inmates on two shifts.
Most of the laundry’s contracts are with hospitals, including the University of Virginia Medical Center, its biggest client.
On a smaller scale, the prison has become known for horticulture. A greenhouse, stocked with everything from large tropical plants to tiny regional seedlings and restroom doors labeled “pistils” and “stamen,” is ground zero for Kates Day, named for the prison’s first warden.
Entering its 68th year, the Kates Day plant sale is held the first Wednesday of May (this year, May 2), with profits going toward scholarships for inmates pursuing college and nonacademic degrees while serving time, funded by the Elizabeth Kates Foundation. Visitors buy all manner of foliage nurtured by inmates, who can earn certifications in landscaping, nursery care and other career fields through the horticulture program.
Hobbs attributes the prison’s few violent incidents, as well as its low recidivism percentage (17 percent compared with the state average of 22 percent among female offenders) to the inmates’ activity. And a six-week pre-release program instituted by Hobbs in 2003 has lowered recidivism among its graduates to 12.5 percent.
“We obviously are doing something good here,” she says. “That comes from us saying, ‘You can do this.’ We have seen women who just blossomed.”
Hobbs has a busy life outside the prison; she leads the children’s ministry and the choir at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Manakin-Sabot and serves on several Goochland County committees, including the school superintendent’s community advisory board.
“She stays so very busy,” says Jane Farleigh, president of the Kates Foundation. “I don’t know how she does it.”
Hobbs’ earlier plan to work with young people is fulfilled through her work in the church’s youth program. “They yearn for something to do but also to be acknowledged,” she says. “They also want to help. I’m pretty good getting connected to kids.”
Her son Reggie’s activities also take up time. An athlete, drummer and artist, the fourth-grader takes after his mother in many ways — acting as cheerleader and motivator on his teams and projecting a confident, friendly personality.
Her husband, Milton Hobbs, who works for Philip Morris USA, is more reserved, but he plays an active role with Reggie, tossing a football around or playing outside with his son. For his wife, Milton often “becomes the sounding board” when she has a tough day at work.
Milton met Wendy through her cousins, but when he called her for a date in 1984, she didn’t remember him very well.
“She put me on hold for a couple weeks,” he remembers, but in the end, things worked out. The couple married in 1986 and now live in a spacious ranch house in Goochland County. Having Reggie meant a big change in their lives.
“We had to get accustomed to planning more,” Wendy says. Reggie is a regular visitor to his mom’s prison, where he’s met inmates and gone to chapel services and even played basketball in the prison gym.“Every time I go there, she shows me around,” he says, noting that the inmates often cry. “I feel pretty sad for them, because they’re away from their families.”
Although Hobbs sees her family quite a bit, she misses Halifax, where her grandfather purchased hundreds of acres and then sold them to her relatives, whom the warden calls a “rainbow coalition” of black, white and Indian heritage. “I hope one day to go back home,” she says.
But in the meantime, she finds plenty of needs to be fulfilled at the Goochland prison. “If we see people coming back, we ask what’s wrong,” Hobbs says. “I believe these women can do better.”
Inmate ScholarsAnnual plant sale funds classes for prisoners
Mention Kates Day at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, and you’ll see faces light up. Hundreds of people attend the plant sale on the first Wednesday of May, a time when inmates in the horticulture program get to show the results of their work to the public. This year’s event is May 2.
Shrubs, herbs, tropical plants and other foliage are sold, with proceeds going toward scholarships for inmates through the Elizabeth Kates Foundation, named for the prison’s first warden.
In 2006, 75 women received scholarships for J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College classes, extension courses and nonacademic degrees, which they pursue while serving their sentences. The Kates Foundation, started 68 years ago, also funds the horticulture program and makes gifts to the prison like ceiling fans and curtains for the chapel.
“If there’s something they need,” foundation president Jane Farleigh says of the inmates, “they know we’ll bend over backwards to help them.”The horticulture program, which has roots in the days when VCCW was a prison farm, is based in a large, homey greenhouse, with rooms set at different temperatures and levels of moisture.
“It’s really been my sanity, to tell you the truth,” says Jillene Wiele, who has served three years for a probation violation and is a graduate of the horticulture program, which offers certification in landscaping, nursery work and other fields. “It’s getting back to nature.” Once Wiele is released, she hopes to work in horticultural therapy, helping both the elderly and the young to “learn more about themselves and that they have a purpose.”
Farleigh notes that none of the Kates scholarship recipients has returned to prison. Many have re-entered society with job skills, an achievement of which Warden Wendy Hobbs is proud.
“You will not walk out of here and say you didn’t have a chance to get an education,” she says.