Meet Philadelphia's First Female Prisons Chief

by | April 26, 2016

By Julia Terruso

Blanche Carney first set foot in a jail in 1994.

The experience was life-changing.

Carney was a foster-care social worker at the time, with a client jailed on a minor theft charge. Carney was bringing the woman's 6-year-old daughter to visit.

She still recalls how the girl jumped as each inmate's name was called, her sprint when it came time to see her mother, and the pain of tearing the child away when the visit ended.

"I knew, working with children in foster care -- sometimes they're in loving homes, but there's always that separation issue," she said, "and I thought, well, what are we doing for the parents?"

Carney, 45, is Philadelphia's new prisons commissioner. During 21 years spent working in the system, she supervised and expanded educational, vocational, and parenting programming, and helped set up the city's first all-female prison, Riverside Correctional Facility.

Carney, recently appointed by Mayor Kenney, is the first woman to hold the top prisons job in Philadelphia. She is the only female prisons commissioner in the country, according to the National Institute of Corrections.

But Carney is not keen on talking about glass ceilings.

"It just so happens I'm a female in corrections," she said during an interview in her corner window office at the prison complex in Holmesburg last week. "I do understand and appreciate people's enthusiasm . . . but we have the same skills, the same training. We just really like the field of corrections. And this is not for the faint of heart."

Also, being a woman working in the prison system does not make Carney a rarity. Fifty-one percent of Philadelphia's prison system staff is female.

Born and raised in Harrisburg, Carney is the eldest of three children. She graduated from Lincoln University and then went to Bryn Mawr College for graduate school. She started as a social worker with Philadelphia prisons in 1995 and ascended quickly through the ranks, from social work supervisor to human services program administrator and then deputy commissioner for restorative and transitional services.

"She's fair and firm and really by the book," said Clyde Ganey, a retired former deputy commissioner who worked with Carney. "She goes all in in what she does. She's compassionate, and I told her, now she'll have to lead not so much with her heart, lead with her head, because [the job] will weigh you down."

In September, Carney greeted Pope Francis at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility; this month, she was named prisons commissioner a day before the city received a $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant to dramatically decrease its prison population.

Criminal justice experts nationwide will be watching Philadelphia and Carney as that multiagency initiative takes shape.

"It's good pressure," Carney said. "It's all about balancing safety and balancing justice. We're not just opening the doors and saying, 'Let everyone out, all will be well!' We're looking from the first point of contact with criminal justice through incarceration at strategies along the way."

When the city opened the women's prison in 2004, Carney helped spearhead programming geared toward women, such as domestic-violence services, doula classes for pregnant women, and a systemwide campaign to ensure that parents know their visitation options while in jail.

"Blanche understood security, but also the needs of females, and she pointed that out. She opened up my eyes to a lot in that way," Ganey said.

Working in a prison has extreme highs and lows. Carney said the mother-daugther visit that inspired her prison work ended years later in a reunion; the woman stayed out of jail.

When the outcome isn't as happy, her job is all the more important, she said.

In 2012, Carney sat with a woman on a conference call with the Department of Human Services about her parental rights. The woman had several convictions and her child's foster parents wanted to adopt her daughter.

Carney passed notes to the woman encouraging her to keep talking through tears during the call. In the end, the woman was told her rights had been terminated.

"She just screamed out, and it's a scream that you just -- you never forget it," Carney said.

"The only thing you can do with her, really, is hold her, help her come to grips with the decisions she's made. . . . Those are some of the hardest times."

Carney's colleagues say she thrives in those one-on-one moments with inmates.

"I believe what I see from her," said Mary Talley, a retired social-work supervisor who worked with Carney for 20 years. "One of the things inmates have said to me many times is that people can understand sincerity, and if someone cares -- even when you're challenging an inmate to do better -- they know when you really care."

For all of that happens inside the walls of the prisons, Carney says her favorite moments are encounters with former inmates outside.

They happen all the time -- at sandwich shops, in parking lots. The day Kenney announced Carney's appointment, she ran into a former inmate at City Hall.

"That's a good feeling, because she's not incarcerated, she looked great, healthy ... and what she said to me was, 'I haven't been back in years,' " Carney said, smiling. "That's the message for any ex-offender. I say, you don't have to tell anyone where you've been, it's where you are right now."

(c)2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer