IONIA — During her 25-year career with the Michigan Department of Corrections, Pam Withrow was the first female warden of a male prison in the state of Michigan, and she implemented a cognitive behavioral change program that decreased violence among inmates.
Withrow has written two books about her experiences as warden of the Michigan Dunes Correctional Facility in Holland from 1983 to 1986 and as warden of the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia from 1986 until her retirement in 2001 at age 52.
Her autobiography, “Welfare to Warden,” is currently available from most major online booksellers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Abe Books. Her new memoir, “Madam Warden,” will follow on Dec. 8. Either tome would be an excellent gift for the local history buffs on your holiday shopping list.
“When I started out, I was just an Indiana farm girl,” Withrow said. “I came to Michigan and ended up, by accident, in the Department of Corrections.”
Withrow said there is some overlapping material in the two books, because the first one was originally intended for family and friends who might be interested in her career and achievements, and as a way to leave a written record behind for her descendants.
“My husband admonished me when I first got to be a warden that it was historic and that I should hang onto materials and write a book about it at some point,” Withrow recalled. “So I did, I held onto stuff, and I had boxes and boxes of datebooks and other materials to refer to when I wrote the autobiography.”
“Welfare to Warden” is a straight, factual recounting of the events in her life in chronological order and with extra information explaining some of the more esoteric terminology readers encounter.
“My book club members had lots of questions when they read it,” Withrow explained. “I decided that my grandchildren probably would have some of those same questions, so I included some appendices that have to do with corrections and cognitive work.”
Unfortunately, the publisher, Mission Point Press in Traverse City, informed Withrow that there is not really a market for autobiographies. However, the publisher also advised that if she were to reformat the book into a memoir, they might be able to move a few copies. Withrow agreed, and the resulting memoir, “Madam Warden,” will be released on Dec. 8.
“The memoir is in a chapter format, it is not chronological, and it deals with topics,” Withrow explained. “I talk about various prisons where I worked and various prisoners that I’ve known. There is a chapter about Ron Hammond, a prisoner with whom I came became acquainted while he was at the Michigan Reformatory. He was paroled, although he was initially serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole, and he is part of the Calvin (University) Prison Initiative. There is a chapter about my coworkers and how they helped or hindered life along the way. The book ends with lessons I learned after 25 years in prison.”
A career in corrections was not her first choice, she originally started college intending to become a state trooper, then an attorney. Eventually, Withrow earned a general degree with a law enforcement emphasis from Lansing Community College in 1973 and a bachelor’s in social sciences from Michigan State University in 1975.
With no employment prospects, Withrow took a job as an operator at Michigan Bell and relied on government assistance to keep herself afloat.
“I had a small son at that point, and I just was not doing a good job as a mom. I became a welfare mother,” Withrow recalled. “By then I was dating a bus driver (in Lansing), and one day he said to a bus full of state employees, ‘My girlfriend has a degree in criminal justice,’ which was a stretch, and somebody on the bus said, ‘I think corrections are starting to hire women.’ And that’s how I ended up in the business. It was pure luck!”
“The first job I had was for a year, the second job I had was for a year and the third job I had was the camp supervisor’s job,” Withrow continued. “I decided this corrections thing was pretty interesting, so why don’t I stick around and see what happens?”
Withrow is credited with changing the culture at the Michigan Reformatory, known informally as “gladiator school,” to one emphasizing respect and cooperation. She had one particularly misogynistic colleague to deal with, but he eventually caught on to Withrow’s ability after a few years and grew to respect her.
“The person who was most obstructive was the sergeant that I had when I was first a supervisor,” Withrow remembered. “The lieutenant was the first shift supervisor and this guy supervised second shift. The three of us met in private, and we were standing in a small space, fortunately, private from the rest of the staff. I am five four and the lieutenant was also taller than me, but this guy was six two and a big, broad-shouldered guy. He said, ‘Supervisor Withrow, I just want you to know that I’ll give you my usual 110 percent. Until you hang yourself, and then I want to be the one to pull the trap door.’ This was proclaimed with gestures and everything, so I think he had rehearsed it. It was pretty amazing to me that somebody would say that to his supervisor! But back then, you just kind of had to roll with it, so I did. I stammered out something like, ‘I hope you’ll give me a chance.’ Well, I didn’t promote him, and finally the sergeant got the understanding that he would not get promoted until he quit being such a knucklehead. Eventually, I did promote him, but I was there for three and a half years before he matured and came to recognize that we each had our role to play and we could complement each other. So it all worked out the long run.”
Her work with the cognitive behavioral change program “Thinking for a Change” earned her honorary doctorates from Grand Valley State University and Ferris University. The program is still in use by the corrections department today and has been proven to reduce violence in the prison population, especially among younger inmates whose brains aren’t fully formed yet.
“It’s a process where an individual is introduced to the idea that their thinking drives their behavior, and if they’d like to change their behavior, they need to change their thinking,” Withrow explained. “It is all based on the offender’s wish to change. If you’ve ever tried to stop smoking, lose weight, start an exercise program or make any kind of behavioral change, you know that it’s all got to come from you, somebody else can’t tell you to do it and have it be effective.”
Withrow retired in 2001 at age 52 and spent the first few years babysitting her infant grandchildren and traveling around the US and to England, Scotland and Wales with her husband William Kime, who passed away in 2018 after an illness.
She has served on the Ionia Community Library Board, did literacy tutoring with adults, was involved with Rotary and the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and was a Chamber of Commerce Ambassador.
Although retired, Withrow has recently been writing reports for the courts on juvenile waiver cases for the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office.
“A Supreme Court decision said if an offender committed a crime and was 17 or younger at the time of the crime, and then was sentenced to life with no possibility of parole, states ought to take another look at that,” Withrow explained. “According to brain research, male brains simply don’t completely develop until about age 26. Having the understanding of the consequences of behavior, even killing somebody, isn’t there when guys are 14, 16, 17. Michigan has been going through a process of taking a look at all of those cases where the crime from which the sentence is life was committed 17 or younger. They hire people like me to write reports to the court, because we understand the records. how they were put together and what behavior in prison might mean. I’ve testified a couple times and I’ve written five reports at this point.”