New Iowa prison chief, who graduated from Mason City High School, discusses her career, vision for agency

DES MOINES — The 47-year-old woman, a 1990 graduate of Mason City High School, who’s now in charge of Iowa’s prison system says an internship she landed years ago was the turning point in her career path.

Beth Skinner’s original goal was “to become a cop,” but Skinner was taking a social work class in 2002 and got an internship working with probation officers.

“I’m like: ‘This is the perfect job because it’s part law enforcement, in a sense, and part treatment,” Skinner said during an interview with Radio Iowa.

Skinner was soon hired as a probation officer, then elevated to supervisor. She left state government in 2012 and worked as a policy analyst for two national organizations that study how to reduce the number of paroled inmates who commit another crime and get sent back to prison.

“I traveled all over the country, talking to various experts and corrections administrators, talking about what works, what doesn’t work,” Skinner said. “What’s implementation like? What are the culture issues? What are the barriers?”

Skinner returned to the Iowa in 2015 to manage a federally-funded project to study how those methods worked in Iowa’s prison system.

“From directors, to correctional officers and work groups, to treatment directors, to probation and parole…it was really a collaborative effort and, of course, with our community partners and our state agency partners like the Department of Human Services and Workforce Development,” Skinner said. “…That’s what we know when it comes to recidivism reduction. It has to be ‘all hands on deck.’ Everyone plays a role in that. I did that for a few years and then I applied for the director’s position and I am honored and humbled to be in this position today.”

Governor Reynolds, who appointed Skinner to the job last week, said she and Skinner share a belief in second chances for the 95 to 96 percent of prisoners who will ultimately be released.

“We’re all humans. We make mistakes,” Skinner told Radio Iowa. “We do have to hold people accountable, but we also have to give them treatment and give them chances to come back and be productive members of society after they’ve been incarcerated.”

Skinner said the state’s prison system has programs to address issues the often land paroled inmates back in prison, getting them substance abuse treatment and access to medications for mental illnesses. But prison programs also help inmates develop problem solving skills and impulse control.

“It’s helping people look at issues differently, to stop and think before they make a decision. That’s why it’s so great to do the role playing — a lot of people don’t like to role play,” Skinner said, with a laugh, “but to role play and to practice those skills in various situations.”

There are about 8500 inmates in Iowa’s prison system. Skinner is meeting with the head of the union that represents correctional officers and Skinner is planning a tour of all the facilities in the prison system in the next three months.

“Get kind of boots on the ground and start talking with staff about what’s working, what’s not,” Skinner said. “Working with people, the great people in our department and the people of Iowa — that, to me, is the most exciting thing.”

Skinner is the second women to lead Iowa’s prison system in the past three decades. She’s heard from the handful of women who are in leadership roles in prison systems around the country.

“The people I’ve been looking up to for what seems like decades, reaching out and saying: ‘Director Skinner, welcome to the family,’” Skinner said. “I’m like: ‘Wow.’”

Skinner lived in Cleveland, Ohio, until she was 12 when her family moved to Mason City. She’s a graduate of Mason City High School. Her mother, Joyce Skinner, still lives in Mason City.