Video by Ilea Shutler. Produced by Dick Pryor.
“Conversations” is a series of video interviews with Oklahomans about subjects that relate to some of the state’s important issues. The 2016-2017 series is sponsored by the Chickasaw Nation and is made possible by a grant from the Institute for Nonprofit News.
Debbie Aldridge worked for more than 20 years at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Now she runs Oklahoma’s largest prison for women, the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud. She talks about the uniqueness of overseeing female inmates and the sometimes frustrating efforts to encourage them to give up criminal behavior.
Aldridge is originally from western Kansas and was the first person in her family to enter law enforcement or corrections. She worked as a dispatcher for a police department in a Denver suburb, then moved to McAlester, where she had family, to work at the prison. She said she was drawn to that career because she is rules-oriented.
Aldridge started as a typist clerk, then became a unit secretary, procedures secretary and a unit manager. Later she was named deputy warden of the Howard McLeod Correctional Center, a male minimum-security facility southeast of Atoka. She was there for only three months when the warden became terminally ill, and Aldridge took on his job in addition to her job as deputy.
Aldridge herself became ill from an aneurysm, and after surgery and being out for 34 days, she agreed to return to work. Three days later, she said, she was asked to become warden at Mabel Bassett, where she has been since 2015.
The warden said she may have 14 correctional staff members overseeing about 1,400 inmates at one time, and sticking to rules is essential to protecting inmates, staff and the public.