• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

Rankin ranks highly with state jailers

WOODFORD JAILER Michele Rankin, right, with jail employee Madison Venturini, takes a look at one of the many monitors showing images from cameras stationed around the Woodford County Detention Center. Rankin is one of two female members of the Kentucky Jailers Association's Board of Directors. (Photo by John McGary)

For the third year in a row, Woodford County Jailer Michele Rankin was voted by her peers to the Kentucky Jailers Association's board of directors at the group's summer meeting in Louisville. She's one of just two females on the 20-member board, which meets monthly and more often when the state legislature is in session, and the only female board member who runs a full-service jail. Asked how she got into the business, Rankin, 45, who took office in November of 2014, said, "I think it just kind of found me." She'd worked for the Woodford County Police Department before it merged with the Versailles Police Department, then as an insurance agent. She was hired by the Woodford County Detention Center in August 2010 as a captain, later being promoted to chief deputy. With then-Woodford Jailer Johnny Jones not running for reelection, Rankin won the 2014 Democratic primary for the big job and took over when Jones resigned that November. "I thought I was going to do administrative-type work, and that's totally not what I do. It's nothing like that at all. But that's what I thought I was going to be doing. And then you find out real quick, that's not what corrections is about. We say it's 'care, custody and control,' but one minute, I might be dealing with U.S. Marshals, and the next minute, I'm back there cleaning up poop," Rankin said. When she was interviewed by The Sun, Rankin said she was in the second of two 100-hour work weeks. "I like when I get to do my job - what I set out to do. It is a crazy day today ... But it's still just getting to help people ... making a difference in their lives or to be out in public, and they say ... 'Hey, Miss Michele' - most of the time that means they've been incarcerated, because that's what most of them call me is Miss Michele. Or when they tell me, 'I got my kids back.' 'I'm in college - I've got my life back together, I'm doing great. Thank you for telling me about this meeting,' or 'Thank you for telling me I could do it ...'" Rankin said. Last week, four inmates tested for their general education diploma (GED). "Those are the good things. Those are the things I enjoy," said Rankin. Other parts of her job are not as enjoyable, and sometimes misunderstood by the public, she said. "I think there's a preconceived notion that it's like 'Andy Griffith,' and it's not. I'm running 150 inmates right now in a 95-bed facility, and we house federal, state and county inmates. So we've got some pretty high-profile cases," Rankin said. "I wish I could put a 'No Vacancy' sign out there and let it flash sometimes, but you can't." She's been criticized for programs like the annual father-daughter dance (held in the jail lobby) and one in which inmates are allowed to pick out a donated present for a child. "I mean, we literally taught inmates how to wrap presents for their kids. And seeing men that have 20 to 40 years on the shelf, tears rolling down their face, because they've never done anything like that before," Rankin said. "I have caught a lot of grief over that, over the father-daughter dance or things like that. I'm not rewarding them. I'm trying to teach them a different way. I'm trying to show them, 'This is what it's like to be sober and enjoy life.'" After the recent death of a former inmate, Rankin said she learned the only good picture of him with his daughter was from the father-daughter dance. Continuing challenges include an aging jail (the present facility was built in 1988), overcrowding (many inmates wait for months to be transferred to state or federal prisons) and hiring and keeping good employees. "The hardest thing is staffing, because it's so hard to find people to work for the minimal amount. They're non-hazardous duty. I mean, they get hit, they get spit on. Unfortunately, if an inmate does use the bathroom on the floor or throw up, we have to clean that up," Rankin said. Rankin, who has four children between the ages of nine and 23 with husband Chris, reluctantly admits that she's not the stereotypical jailer - but said she's yet to hear her first wolf whistle from inmates. "Never. Never. They know better," she said, smiling. "Sometimes they'll try, when they first come in, (they'll) say, 'Hun,' and I say, 'That'll be the first and last time you ever say that.' And they're like, 'Yes, ma'am,' and that's it," Rankin said. On a particularly stressful day, Rankin can glance outside and see a garden full of green beans, okra and corn that's grown, harvested and eaten by the inmates. It was started by her father, Steve Shryock, who passed away shortly after she won the May 2014 primary, when he was an employee there. She's coming off what she said was the best financial year in the detention center's history, and while the overcrowding and aging jail issues are unlikely to go away anytime soon, the county's top elected official is a fan. "I think our jailer has done a wonderful job. It certainly takes a dedicated individual to be the jailer and she deals with all types of problems and situations that the ordinary person on the street doesn't know she has to deal with," said Judge-Executive John Coyle, adding that he's proud of her role in the jailer's association. "She's top-notch." It's an assessment shared by jail employee Lt. Jacob Pitcock, who began working there before Rankin. "This really is a very well-run jail and she tries very hard to help these people out, and the key thing there is, they're people - yes, they're inmates and they're here, but they're people first." Rankin has put off questions about whether she'll run for reelection, but last week, near the tail end of two very long weeks, she said she would. The inmates, some of whom say hello are the main reason for her decision - though she knows now that she can't save every one of them. "I can give these people the tools and the knowledge to live their life differently, but if they come back in to jail, it's not about me," Rankin said. "I've gotten a lot tougher. I will say that. At first, I was going to save the world, but then you finally just say, 'It's not about me.'"

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