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This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.

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Beth Skinner said taking the helm of the Iowa Department of Corrections, a position historically dominated by men, isn't her "underdog story."

Her underdog story was a series of challenges that she knocked down, again and again: a learning disability diagnosis, parents who said law enforcement wasn't a fitting career for women, those who said it wasn't possible to be a full-time residential officer while also a full-time graduate student. 

Skinner, 47, was appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in June to run the DOC. In the first six months, Skinner joined Reynolds' criminal justice reform committee and rolled out a system to simplify the voting rights restoration application

“If we do our job right and we do it well, there will be less victims, and that’s what we strive for," said Skinner, one of the Des Moines Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2020.

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A nontraditional path

When Skinner was in grade school, she announced from the backseat of her parents' car that she wanted to be a police officer. Her father told her it wasn't a woman's job.

“Don’t tell me I can’t do that," she remembered thinking. 

After earning a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Iowa, Skinner joined a Los Angeles Police Department training academy.

She later found her way back to Iowa, where she enrolled in graduate social work classes. She decided to pursue a career in corrections after she interned with the DOC; it was the perfect way to combine her law enforcement background — security — with social work — treatment.

More: ACLU: Fix Iowa prison overcrowding by changing drug laws and addressing mental health

“I think that’s what is going to probably elevate her nationally," Sarah Sanders, director of the University of Iowa's school of social work, said of Skinner's background. The two were introduced when Skinner was a graduate student.

After earning her doctorate, Skinner worked as the re-entry resource director for a nonprofit criminal justice policy think-tank. She traveled around the country to speak with corrections administrators about evidence-based best practices. 

A few years later she got a call from the Iowa DOC, asking her to come back to implement a $3 million statewide recidivism grant. She took the job. 

The director position, usually occupied by people with more of an institutional prison background, opened not long after. 

“I thought, why not?” Skinner said. She became the first woman in more than two decades to head the department, which last had female leadership in 1993, when Sally Chandler Halford held the title.

'This job was made for me'

When her family moved to Mason City, a 13-year-old Skinner was diagnosed with learning disabilities in math and reading comprehension. 

“I will work just as hard as anyone else to challenge myself," she said of her response to that diagnosis.

The most recent challenge, taking on the responsibilities of DOC director, was the first time Skinner said to herself, “This job was made for me.” 

Part of Skinner's five-year plan is to collaborate and build partnerships across agencies, address unnecessary barriers created by the system, and significantly reduce Iowa's recidivism rate, which increased by nearly 39% in the past five years. 

More: Iowa could soon be alone in the nation with felon voting ban — and become a bigger target for ban's opponents

On Skinner's desk is the book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard," one of the many leadership titles she keeps close. 

Her daily regimen includes consuming one chapter from a self-improvement book and one research article. Skinner said the proof of this is scattered around the home she shares with her wife, three daughters, dogs and cats.

“I have a responsibility to this agency and to this state to be the best person I can be," she said. "And I’m working on it every single day.” 

Skinner has yet to be confirmed by the state Senate; for that, she'll need bipartisan support once the 2020 session begins. 

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A team effort 

By the middle of December, Skinner had visited all but one DOC institution in her effort to meet with staff during their shift change.

“I’ll keep this quick,” Skinner said in November, addressing a room of correctional officers, counselors and leaders at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville.

She told them it’s important to remember why they do their work, and how it fits into the mission of making the prison and community safer. 

She calls it, "coming back to the basics." 

Kris Weitzell, warden at Newton Correctional Facility, said she's excited that someone as energetic and vision-driven as Skinner is heading the department.

Weitzell, whose career with the Iowa DOC began in 1982, said she doesn't remember another director stopping to visit with staff across the state as Skinner has done.

"It really sent a message that she cares," Weitzell said. “If you didn't know she was the director of corrections, you'd just think she was one of the staff. She just carries herself as one of the team.”

Nicole Jarrett, division director of corrections and reentry at the National Reentry Resource Center, said a big part of Skinner's leadership style is bringing people along. 

Jarrett said for Skinner — whom she worked with at the justice center — there are no dumb questions. She said Skinner is light-hearted but also has a lot of depth. She brings optimism and up-to-date research data to every undertaking.

"There’s a change happening around criminal justice work and reentry work, and I think she really signifies the best of that," Jarrett said. "She believes deep down in her bones that she can make significant change."

15 People to Watch in 2020: These Iowans are working for good in the new year

'We don't want to warehouse people'

Skinner reminds her staff that people will make mistakes and that people can rehabilitate.

“We don’t want to warehouse people," she said. "We want to provide them treatment to address what brought them in in the first place.”

She opts out of labels like "offenders" or "felons," instead using phrases like "individuals incarcerated."

Skinner laid out a two-pronged approach: changing culture and philosophy and changing strategy.This includes building treatment capacity, improving reentry practices and addressing racial disparities. The imprisonment rate for black Iowans is about 11 times that of white Iowans — one of the worst rates in the United States. 

“We’re doing good victim work if we’re making sure we’re treating these people and when they come back out, they don’t re-offend," she said.

More: Iowa, now the lone state with a felon voting ban, automates part of the restoration process

Skinner in November stepped into an intensive mental health supervision unit at the Coralville facility.Men in prison cells stuck their heads through openings in the doors. 

“This place here changed my life,” one told her. 

“We want you to be successful,” she told another. 

Skinner told one man she'd read his letter that morning. A different man kept his head in his cell, saying he'd been struggling recently. 

“I’m trying to get my stuff together so that when I get ready to go home, I’m on a straight path,” another man said.

Skinner continued down the line, asking how each man was doing and how he was bettering himself. 

“Beth really brought into social work her law enforcement background but also this real, kind, gentle way of wanting to work with offenders," Sanders said.

Skinner is a change agent with the ability to bring a sense of dignity to corrections, she added, lauding Skinner as a dear friend, life of the party and "phenomenal mother."

"I think that Beth is just beginning in how she will have the ability to reform corrections," Sanders said. "She’s just starting.” 

About 'People to Watch'

The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.

Get to know Beth Skinner

  • BORN: 1972, Cleveland, Ohio
  • RESIDENCE: Des Moines
  • EDUCATION: A bachelor's degree in psychology, a master's degree in social work, and a doctorate in social work from the University of Iowa
  • OCCUPATION: Director of the Iowa Department of Corrections
  • CLAIM TO FAME: Played rugby at the University of Iowa 
  • TITLES or POSITIONS of NOTE: Director of the National Reentry Resource Center at the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York; adjunct professor at the University of Iowa; director of risk reduction, statewide recidivism reduction coordinator and research director with the Iowa DOC

Anna Spoerre covers crime and courts for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at aspoerre@dmreg.com, 515-284-8387 or on Twitter at @annaspoerre.

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