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Ask Robyn Williams about the biggest challenges she faced working in Utah's corrections system and she pauses briefly, mulling over a thoughtful — and characteristically blunt — answer.

"I can't say what made it most difficult, but I can say it was difficult," she said. "Part of it was being a woman and part of it was looking more like the inmates than the officers."

Williams is quick to add she was no trailblazer. There were other officers of color before her, including Betty Gaines-Jones, who was both the first female warden at the prison's women's facility, the first black warden in Utah, and one of Williams' role models.

"There were lessons she taught me along the way, things like you will never be one of them," said Williams, meaning white men. "There is always an inside joke you are not privy to when you are in a male-dominated institution. There is a certain amount of truth in having to run faster, jump higher, be better just to pull even. That doesn't only apply to me. ... Everybody has to figure out their own way to navigate those waters."

But Williams did more than pull even, rising over nearly three decades to the top echelon of the state Department of Corrections to become deputy director of operations, a post she officially retired from at year's end.

Williams leaves in the midst of an administrative shake-up at the department, led for the past six years by Tom Patterson. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said earlier this month he will replace Patterson. Williams said her retirement plans were already in motion before that announcement.

"It's my time," she said.

Patterson said promoting Williams was one of his best decisions.

"We have a vision statement that our organization has taken quite seriously — accountability, honor and integrity," Patterson said. "She has been amazing as far as holding herself and others accountable. ... She is mission driven, she is focused on task and yet she doesn't toot her own horn at the conclusion."

Steve Turley, director of institutional operations at the Utah State Prison in Draper, calls Williams a "great teacher."

"She pushes you so you want to go above and beyond what you are capable of doing," said Turley. "She has a way that she believes in you and helps you believe in yourself to put out a product that oftentimes you didn't think you were capable of but, because of her teaching and support, the product is great."

The Big Three • Williams said "lack of fear" brought her to Utah — a place both unfamiliar and far from family.

She grew up in the Raymond Rosen public housing projects in North Philadelphia.

"I am very proud of that, actually," Williams said. "I didn't know that everybody didn't live like I lived. As far as I'm concerned, my upbringing was just fine. I would not change it for anything."

Her mother set an example of hard work; her father, long deceased, of the power of actions over words. Williams' beloved grandmother was the "practical voice," the example of spiritual strength.

After high school, the military offered a path out of the projects. Williams joined the Army and spent enough time in the service to "learn a lot, not long enough to retire."

Williams decided to come to Utah to join friends she knew from the Army. She held various jobs while finishing degrees in sociology and psychology at the University of Utah and then applied to be a corrections officer, a move that would set her career trajectory.

"It's not one of those things you grow up thinking you want to do," Williams said. But, given her background and its paramilitary structure, corrections seemed a fit.

Williams personally knew people who served time before being exonerated for crimes they didn't commit; she also has family in prison "and they did it."

"It goes both ways," she said.

But, "There is something in me that knows they are not all bad people. Being a thinking, rational person, I know that everybody in this country in prison didn't do it. If you put that little piece in your head, that it's statistically impossible, you deal with everybody a little bit differently. You don't look at them as less than or people who can't be salvaged or saved, or people who can't turn their lives around, people who can't possibly make a positive contribution."

That perspective proved helpful as Williams moved from one post to another within Corrections, including stints at Adult Probation and Parole. At one point, she led a local FBI task force on fugitives and violent crime — the only woman and non-agent to hold such an assignment at the time.

"It was a good assignment," Williams said, who received training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. "I learned a lot, not only from the cases themselves but from the people I worked with."

She next worked as a supervisor at a halfway house for sex offenders, as a supervisor for parole and probation agents, and at the department's law enforcement bureau, which conducts internal investigations.

At each step, Williams said she relied on her "Big Three" as guides. The points on that compass: Was it legal? Was it ethical? Was it moral?

"If you do not violate my big three, I will go to the wall for you," she said.

Williams, who lost her only child, a daughter, in an accident years ago, is intensely private about her personal life.

"I went out of my way to separate those facets of my life," she said. "People will beat you with what they know about you. It may be something relatively benign, but given the wrong motivation, it becomes something totally different.

She dedicated herself to the job, routinely putting in 10- to 12-hour days.

"I am a sprinter," she said. "I work a lot of hours every single day — not because anybody made me, but because it is important to me to do the best job I am capable of and that is not defined by the clock."

Craig Burr, division director of programming, said that Corrections was Williams' life.

"She devoted so much to help Corrections," Burr said. "Even during tough budget times, through her effort, we were able to establish a career ladder for all the employees. ... I've just really appreciated her mentorship."

But, she acknowledges, "no one can sprint indefinitely."

The bad guy • By mid-December, Williams had begun to dismantle her office in the administration building on Minuteman Drive in Draper.

Into packing boxes went all the items that kept her grounded through the years: a bill of sale for a black slave; a photo of Shawn Anderson at the funeral for his father, Stephen Anderson, a Corrections officer killed in 2007 during an inmate's escape attempt; three statues of African women — one a single figure, the other two with varying numbers of children.

The statues "kind of speak to me in a lot of different ways, whether you are the lone woman, which I sometimes feel like I am here, or the woman with a few you are responsible for, or the woman with a lot of people she feels responsible for. Each plays a valued role and [none] are more important than the others. They felt like my progression," she said.

And the bill of sale? A reminder not to forget the past, to think about the value of one human being to another, of how wrong things can go when one person thinks he or she is superior to, or more loved than, or more favored by God than another, she said.

In her last assignment, as a deputy director, Williams described her role as that of the bad guy.

"I am the person who says no, I am the person who says explain to me why you need that," she said. "I'm a true believer you need tools to get the job done. Sometimes it's personnel, computers, books, cars — a myriad of things. ... But somebody has to be that one that asks that next question, no matter how uncomfortable that question is to ask, and when the pebbles don't pile up, somebody has to be willing to say, 'I don't think so,' and when they do pile up be willing to say, 'You are 100 percent correct, I'm with you, I'm on board.' "

It was a role that, as might be expected, made Williams a target. In a recent letter-writing campaign staged by disgruntled staff, she said she was critiqued as ruling with "an iron fist" and also appearing "honorable."

Her response? "We live and breathe our mission and vision."

"Everybody can't or won't be happy with every decision that is made," Williams said. But "you can't make your decisions based on individuals. If you make decisions based on the impact to individuals you're apt to make bad decisions for the organization as a whole."

Allegations of cronyism at the prison led the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 14 to give Patterson a no-confidence vote this fall, but executive director Kelly Atkinson had high praise for Williams and said he was "sad to see Robyn go."

Atkinson worked on hundreds of grievance cases with Williams during her tenure and said she had the courage both to make tough decisions and, when warranted, acknowledge mistakes.

"I have nothing but the highest compliments for Robyn's abilities," Atkinson said. "Robyn is a very capable, very confident person. But she was a product of the system and she wasn't going to change the system that produced her."

Wiliams says much the same thing in explaining the timing of her retirement.

"Somebody needs to take this organization to the next level," she said. "It has to progress, it has to get better, and sometimes it takes a different set of eyes to see what that is and how to do it."

Those challenges include a possible relocation of the Draper prison; managing a complex and increasingly volatile inmate and probationer populations as efficiently as possible; and keeping intact what she calls "one of the best staffs, bar none" as the economy improves.

"Soon I'll be a taxpayer out there just like everybody else and my expectations will not diminish," she said.

Williams plans to fill her time, for now, with family and volunteering. "I want to give back in a way that, in all honesty, I never thought I would be able to," said Williams, though at this point she isn't sure just what shape that service will take.

A talented woodworker, according to colleagues, Williams also will have more time for what has until now been an escape.

The rest of her to-do list is simple, intangible.

"I want to smile more than frown, I want to laugh more than cry, I want to celebrate more than commiserate and, ultimately, I want to get as good as I get [in] and respect and growth," she said.

Twitter: @Brooke4Trib

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