Up Through the Ranks and in the Home Stretch: A Profile of Colorado Prison Warden Rae Timme

September 13, 2013

The year was 1980. Ramona (Rae) Timme was 25 years old, living in Salida, Colorado, a tiny town of hardy souls living at 7,000 feet in the shadow of the Collegiate Peaks.  Decades later, Salida would become a designer town lined with brewpubs, espresso bars, and whitewater rafting outfitters. But in the early 1980s, it was just the locals and the majestic mountains. Work was scarce, save for the Safeway, a few restaurants and bars, and eventually, a new Wal-Mart outside of town.

Besides the Safeway, where she had worked for a while, there were not many ways for Timme, who had dropped out of nearby Western State College when her first daughter was born, to help supplement the income of her small family: her husband, her daughter, Tracee, and a newborn son, Kirtlan.

So she did what she had to do: found a way to make a living while she could still have her kids nearby, not an easy feat in the middle of nowhere. That’s when she and her sister-in-law decided to take a job managing a convenience store in the even smaller outpost of Nathrop, on Highway 285, a popular road for tourists on their way to the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs or for those who lived between Salida and Buena Vista and worked for the Colorado Department of Corrections at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility.

“We had a swing set there for the kids,” Timme recalls of those times. “I’d throw something in the crockpot at home and bring it in so they’d have dinner.”  “It was great having them there while I worked.”

But as much as she loved the small-town life of Salida, Timme, who after she ran the convenience store, took a job at the new Wal-Mart that had opened nearby, realized that it wasn’t a enough to give her kids the kind of life she envisioned for them. Or for herself.

That’s when she made a decision to apply for one of the coveted jobs that sometimes came open at the nearby state prison in Buena Vista, Chaffee County’s largest—and one of its only–employers. Little did she know that it would change the course of her life.

“I remember waiting at the phone for the call (from the prison),” says youngest daughter Lacee, a music teacher now 30, and in second grade at the time. “My mom was working at Wal-Mart and I think she really wanted something better for us. She said this would mean that we’d be able to have more and that things might be easier.  I think I was only 7, but I remember we all were by the phone and when she told us she got the job, we just jumped up and down.  We were so excited. That was really the start for her.”

So Timme began her job as an administrative secretary at the prison in the scenic small town of Buena Vista, at 8,000 feet, known for some of the best rafting in the state and its old-fashioned Main Street and quaint Victorians. Its state prison also housed some of the state’s toughest inmates and as well as a boot camp that offered lesser offenders an alternative to traditional incarceration.  The huge hulking concrete structure and concertina wire rises unexpectedly into view as you make a right at the intersection of Highways 285 and 24, the last thing you would expect to see against the backdrop of the snowcapped Fourteeners Colorado is known for.

But it was here that Timme, working in a prison housing some of the state’s most violent offenders, put her laser-beam focus on making a better life for herself and her children, challenging herself to do the best she could on the task at hand, to meet every opportunity presented to her.

And she was noticed for this determination, what her oldest daughter Tracee Bentley, now the Legislative Director for Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, calls her attitude of “taking on the world.”

“In the beginning it was hard for her, I think,” she says of her mother. “Back when my mom started in corrections, there weren’t a lot of women in authority positions. She broke the glass ceiling in many ways. From her I learned that doing the right thing isn’t always the popular thing, and that when you get pushback, it’s easy to abandon your ideals and sacrifice what’s right—but my mom never did that.”

As she moved up within the administrative assistant ranks at Buena Vista to the accounting department, her drive and can-do attitude caught the eye of one of the prison’s toughest officers and one who Timme describes as a sort of guardian angel—albeit a demanding one—who saw a spark in her that would lead her to the highest level of the Department of Corrections.

“If you knew me before I met Jerry McFarland and before I went through boot camp training, you would never believe it,” Timme says of her transformation from civilian secretary to correctional officer in the military-style world of corrections. “He had been in the Army Rangers in Vietnam and he took me under his wing: he was determined that I would succeed, even if I didn’t believe I could do it myself.”

That began months of training to prepare Timme for the tests required of boot camp drill sergeants, including a timed 2-mile run in which men had to achieve a time of 16 minutes and women 17 minutes, 45 seconds. Her time: 17 minutes, 10 seconds. (“I will never forget that time as long as I live,” Timme says now.) Though she didn’t become a boot camp sergeant that year, she continued to train with McFarland, running in the winter on Trout Creek Pass (elevation 9,300 feet) and eventually beating her previous time—by a lot.

“Do you want to be a drill sergeant, or a girl sergeant?” Timme recalls McFarland asking her. “Do you want to do it in 17: 45 or 16?”

“There’s no doubt he was pushing me,” she recalls with a laugh. “Okay, okay,” I said. “And you know what? I got my 16.”

By the early 1990s, the former secretary was moving up “in blue” as they say of correctional officers making their way through the ranks. Walking the prison tiers among inmates and not behind a desk, in a sea of mostly men, in a culture often hostile to women, her dedication and intensity began to pay off.

“Her entry into that arena was a crucible of fire,” says John L. Davis, currently the Warden at Buena Vista and a longtime colleague and friend of Timme’s. Of her promotion to Shift Commander at Buena Vista in 2000, he says, “Rae saw when there were challenges and she met them. She was never content with the status quo or what a woman was supposed to do. This is a mixed offense prison; it’s disruptive, and it can be violent. As shift commander, you are responsible for a thousand offenders and staff—this includes everything from emergencies to operations. You have to provide leadership and a foundation of strength, focus, and purpose. You’re dealing with convicted felons, staff, their families, and the surrounding community. It takes courage every single day to go in.”

Timme says she has learned that lesson well, from the beginning, when she found her mentors, like Jerry McFarland and equally important, the warden at Buena Vista when she started out, Warren Diesslin. Or, it seemed, they found her.

“Warren was my first warden at Buena Vista,” she recalls. “I was the Maintenance admin. assistant. It was 1990, I think.  And I’ll never forget, I was in the corridor standing in front of the captain’s office. And Warren, who was the Warden said, ‘so Rae, here’s why we need more women (as correctional officers)’ and thought I should give it a try. And I went home that night and thought, wow, I can’t believe that he would take me seriously. But then I thought, well, why not. And a month later, I was in Tower 1 with a rifle on graveyard shift thinking, ‘how jacked up is this?’”

In a career spanning twenty-five years, from that first fateful phone call to her present job as Warden of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Canon City, Timme, 58, has been able to successfully blend her role of, as daughter Tracee put it: “a blueberry-muffin baking mom” with the tough-talking, no-nonsense drill sergeant that she became in Jerry McFarland’s school of toughness and carried with her throughout her career.

“My mom can bake the best blueberry muffins, and we’d come in after basketball practice, and my friends could never believe my cute, five-foot tall mother was the same person who could be a drill sergeant … go from a basketball game to shaking down prisoners on the bus,” Tracee recalls.

It wasn’t until she attended the boot camp training for correctional officers at Fort McClelland, Alabama, in 1994 that Timme learned in her role as drill sergeant the philosophy of “breaking them down to build them up” firsthand and experienced for herself what the inmates in the program experienced. “I learned to get in the men’s faces; to physically confront them if necessary,” she recalls of her years in the program, which now only exists for juvenile offenders. And, she admits, it wasn’t always easy. Of her years working with female offenders, she says different skills were necessary. “When I had a female who was having a meltdown, I would take her aside and really talk to her,” she says. “I’d let her know that this was her chance to change.  You find that 99 percent of these women were abused in one way or another, and their needs were different.”

This combination of grit, understanding, and warmth isn’t exactly what you expect when you think of a prison warden, but it’s the way that colleagues and friends consistently describe Timme, who is the only female warden in Colorado to have come up through the ranks of correctional officer.

“Two words that come to mind when I think of Rae: courage and consideration,” says fellow warden and friend Angel Medina. “She’s got a heart, and that’s hard to hold on to in the line of work we’re in. She’s able to bring people together; she can interact with the angriest, most difficult offender and with her staff. She reaches out and shakes hands and really means it.”

“In a segregated environment, many of the inmates will see a female and call out obscene things, throw urine at them, but she never loses her cool,” says Medina. “She’s been through the ranks and that’s credibility you can’t fake. She also has the ability to encourage heart in times of darkness of our business. She’s 100 percent in control, but within a minute, she can have everyone laughing.”

This was the case on a recent day at the prison this summer. Timme, wearing a sunny yellow jacket, yellow bead necklace, and pink lipstick, instead of the regulation “blues” she wore for years, talked to inmates working at the staff prison canteen, graduates of the prison’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People program (the program originated with a staff class; Timme brought the program to the inmates when she began her tenure as warden) and interacted with the various correctional officers and administrative staff she runs into on a typical day—if a day here can be called typical. In the past year, the Department of Corrections has had more than its share of tragedy and challenges. On March 19, Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements was murdered by a former inmate as he answered the door at his home. And in June, a fire that raged only miles from the Canon City prison where Timme is warden caused an evacuation of the prison population—the first in the history of the state. And added to that are the daily events—both tragic and hopeful—that Timme manages.

“In between Mr. Clements’ murder, I had a lieutenant whose son had a horrific suicide, in Colorado Springs, and I was at that funeral with a whole bunch of my staff supporting her,” Timme says.  “And I was on my way home and got a call that there had been a murder (at the prison); one inmate had murdered his cell mate. And that’s not a typical day—but it can be.”

It was yet another mentor, a former boss at the Fremont Correctional Facility, where she became warden in 2009, who gave her some advice that she has carried with her.

“So Rae, do you know what the pilot says to the air traffic control when they take off and land?’” she recalled.  “And I said no.  And he said, ‘well if they have 300 passengers and ten crew, the pilot says to air traffic control, ‘I have 310 souls on board.'”

“So at Fremont I had 1661 inmates and 400 staff. So Lou (my boss) says to me, ‘So Rae, you’ve got 2000 souls on board.’  And thankfully, I wasn’t going to be a warden the next day. It was two or three weeks down the road. But it was good that I had time to process that. Because I thought to myself, you cannot afford to make a mistake. Because I have 2000 souls relying on me.  And that has stuck with me ever since.”

The massive responsibility of her job is not lost on Timme, but neither does it seem to weigh her down, especially as she talks and jokes with the staff on a recent day. And her appreciation for them is apparent.

“Let me tell you about my Shift Commander,” she says, as she stopped to greet a uniformed officer while we made our way out of the prison canteen and introduced him. “The morning after Mr. Clements’ murder, I was in touch with (this captain), and he said I should park under the tower (the regular parking is uncovered, and the medium-security prison, flanked with watchtowers and built against a wall of rock rising above, is located in the middle of Canon City, at the end of Main Street). I told him I was fine; I would just park in my usual spot. But you know what, I realized he was just trying to watch out for me. And I really didn’t get emotional about what had happened until I saw that my captain was taking care of me.”

Timme’s dedication, drive, and humility (in addition to her jobs as associate warden and then full warden, she also went back to college and graduated, at age 54, from Adams State College, in 2009) could only lead her to another challenge, which surprises no one who knows her.

When Timme decided to send a tape to CNN last December to try and become part of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Fit Team (watch her tape, here: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-890373), with the goal of competing in the Nautica Malibu 2013 Triathlon on September 8, she had no expectations.  But a few weeks later, she had her first training plan, sent to her and five others chosen by CNN, to begin the long road to Malibu. Her biggest supporter? Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements.

“He thought it was so cool I got to do this,” Timme says.  “At a wardens’ meeting, he got up went on an on (about my training on the CNN Fit Team). He’d been in a terrible bike accident while training for Pedal the Plains last summer and I think was still in physical therapy when he died. The stunning thing he said to me, and that he told the group of wardens, was that I was his inspiration when he went to physical therapy. I about fell over when he said that.”

Timme recalls driving from her home to the prison the morning after his murder thinking about what she would say to the staff.

“I thought back to that morning at the warden’s meeting and thought, ‘you know what? I’m going to do this for him. He was so pumped about me doing this, that this was what I wanted to do for him.”

And do it she did—in a big way. Not only did she finish the triathlon, which consisted of a half-mile ocean swim, 18 mile bike ride, and 4 mile run, she placed fifth in her age group, a huge achievement after months of early-morning laps in the pool, open swims, miles of road and trails run, 5Ks, 10Ks, and the longer bike races with her daughters, as well as a special ride to work—29 miles on a windy stretch of Highway 50 at dawn (see her CNN blog post about her ride, here)—Timme nailed it.

“There are no boundaries for Rae, when it comes to challenges,” says fellow Warden Angel Medina, an accomplished athlete who trained with Timme this summer, including her first ascent of the Manitou Incline next to Pikes Peak, a mile straight up with two thousand feet of altitude gain. And there are no boundaries to what her staff will do to support her, including planning a surprise meeting along the 29-mile route to work she traveled on her bike so that every few miles she had cheers and signs to greet her.

“Rae is very inspiring and so personable,” says longtime colleague and friend Mary Ann Aldrich, Administrative Services Officer who works with Timme at the Territorial Prison in Canon City and has known her since they both started out in corrections in 1988. “If anyone on staff has a hardship, she’s there. She helps the families; she goes to the hospital. Not all wardens do that. And she’s fair, whether it’s at an inmate’s hearing or because she expects something that should be done, to be done. This is still a male business and as a warden and a woman, she is someone who will be remembered as being successful.”

Though Timme is going to retire in October, after 25 years with the Department of Corrections, it’s hard to believe she’s going to slow down. She plans to travel with second husband John, who also worked as a prison officer at Buena Vista and is now a photographer and landscaper, as well as spending time with her three children and grandchildren.

As she gets ready for life after the world of the Department of Corrections, she’s sure to take with her the blend of toughness, kindness, and rolling with it that she has left as her legacy. “When you stumble, make it part of the dance,” reads a poster in her office, a reference to something she learned from a fellow law enforcement official in Fremont County and that she lived for a tense week in late June when she was responsible for evacuating the prison to a nearby facility that was built and never opened as a huge wildfire threatened to engulf Canon City.

“Of course we had an emergency plan in place, but still, you can’t really believe it’s happening. And it wasn’t pretty, but we did it,” she says, with the humility of someone who has done the nearly impossible—safely evacuate 920 inmates as a wildfire raged nearby. Because Canon City houses an infirmary, there were inmates in hospice, those in wheelchairs, those who had respiratory illness, those in segregated units, and those who were not.

“I went to do a swing shift over there (at the prison where inmates were being housed) and many of the inmates were asking when they could come back. It was a difficult time. After all that passed and they got safely back, I received a letter from an inmate who thanked me for getting him out,” she said. “And that felt good.”

“Ever since I went blue, in 1990, I haven’t fit the picture of the drill sergeant or officer you picture having this job,” Timme continues. “I make mistakes,” she says, referring to the poster in her office. “And I’ve worked with many people who say they don’t, but they do. The trick is to roll with it and learn from it, and to teach that to others coming up.”

A few weeks after the fire forced the evacuation of the prison, Timme had a picnic for staff and distributed tee-shirts that proclaimed, “I Survived the Fire.” The next week she held one for the inmates.  For Timme, it was important that they all rolled with it—and made it part of the dance.