Sandra Stewart never thought she would grow up to run a jail. But for the past 12 years, the mother of three grown children has done just that.
As the administrator of the Chaves County Adult Detention Center, Stewart has been so successful that she was recently tapped by Gov. Susana Martinez and the New Mexico State Children, Youth and Families Department cabinet secretary to become the next state director of the Juvenile Justice Services division, starting May 13.
Stewart recently sat down to talk about her time at the Chaves County Detention Center where she oversees programs for adults and juveniles.
“I just liked it here,” she said. “When I first came out here, I just felt like I was supposed to be here.”
Criminal justice wasn’t Stewart’s first choice as a career, she said. But after a bad personal experience with the system, she felt like a victim and she “really didn’t like that,” she said.
Stewart, in sales and management at the time, felt compelled to learn more about how the criminal justice system worked and returned to school to earn a paralegal degree. She moved to Albuquerque from Roswell to work for the city as a paralegal and for a private attorney before moving back to Roswell.
“This had been home to me for a while,” Stewart said. “I made the decision to work for Chaves County, so I got a job with them as an entry-level planning and zoning receptionist.”
Eventually, Stewart studied and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice and started working for the county commissioners when they hired Al Solis as police commissioner.
“Ultimately, I came out here to work with him,” she said. “He has done a lot to support my career.”
Women are still in the minority as administrators in correctional facilities. Stewart said she learned early not to take herself too seriously.
“I just do the best I can and keep marching forward,” she said. “There have been some males who have really supported me along the way and there have been some times when I’ve walked out of a room and knew they were talking about me. I try to tell the women coming up through the ranks that they have to be tougher than their male counterparts and they do.”
Stewart counts her victories, though. Most prominently, the detention center was the first to be accredited by the New Mexico Local Government Accreditation Council. The standards cover best practices for inmates from medical care to security.
“I certainly consider that my greatest accomplishment while I was here,” Stewart said.
The Chaves County facility averages a daily population of some 245 inmates, with some 60 females among that population.
During Stewart’s time at the facility, she has tried to accomplish changing the system to a rehabilitative model, she said, by implementing more programs.
“Especially in the juvenile realm, fortunately in society we have moved toward the rehabilitation model,” Stewart said. “I’m a big believer in that. I’ve watched too many kids that go from the juvenile facility to the adult facility and they’re following in the steps of their parents and their grandparents.”
Stewart said she’s tried to break that cycle and is passionate about those efforts.
Many volunteer programs also assist in helping inmates, such as Wings for Life and volunteers that bring in parenting programs.
“You have to do it one person at a time,” Stewart said. “I’m a big believer in thinking outside the box.”
The jail will also begin a remodel and expansion project just as Stewart leaves, something she has worked on for the past three years. When Stewart leaves, Clay Corn will become acting administrator.
In her new position, Stewart will oversee juvenile facilities, juvenile probation and aftercare and juvenile transition services. She will continue living in Roswell, but also have an office in Santa Fe.
The mission for the CYFD program is one of change, she said.
“Public Safety has always been the No. 1 concern, but beyond public safety, it’s a more rehabilitative model for youth,” she said. “For the kids today, one of the biggest struggles we see is lack of support. … That’s one thing I can’t change. All we can do is find many ways to support the youth in Chaves County so they don’t make those bad decisions. The world has just changed and, as a community, those are our kids.”