LINO LAKES — John King doesn’t bother watching all the grim tales of prison drama populating today’s TV set. He spends enough time on the inside as it is.
King, warden at the Minnesota Correctional Facility–Lino Lakes, names tasteful depictions of prison life “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” among his favorite movies. It’s MSNBC’s “Locked Up,” or HBO’s “Oz” that he can’t always stomach.
“You can’t work in this business for 30 years and not feel institutionalized,” the 53-year-old White Bear Lake resident said. “You come to work and hear those doors clanging behind you and it’s a reminder of where you are.”
It’s King’s second run at the Lino Lakes facility, and it just might be his swan song to a long career of working Minnesota prisons.
“I’ll always do some kind of work to stay busy, I just don’t know if I want to manage people in the next life,” he said.
A native of Boulder, Colo., King moved to the east side of St. Paul at the age of 8 after his dad took a job at 3M. His family eventually moved to White Bear Lake, where he attended the now closed Mariner High School.
He began his career in prisons fresh out of college, in a desperate search for employment in a tough job market. The St. Cloud State graduate had a degree in parks and recreation, a program he said no longer exists at the college. When he landed a prison guard gig at the state’s only maximum security prison in Oak Park Heights, he thought it would be a temporary layover to other work.
“I thought I would get some prison experience and then go out in the real world,” King recalled. “But once I was there I felt it stimulating, and I thought I was good at it.”
Being in close contact with convicted criminals didn’t come without early challenges. King grew up in a largely homogenous, ‘70s-era community.
“In prison, there are many different cultures and I didn’t have a lot of experience with people of color,” said King. “It could also become quite mundane. I was either super busy or it was slow.”
Not soon after he started, King was assaulted by a prisoner in what he calls a “learning experience.” He was helping another guard escort an inmate to his room and was punched square in the face.
“It was a different time in prisons when I started,” the warden said. “We got urine or feces thrown on us and we would just change our shirts and go back to work.”
Today, King tries to bridge the boundaries between prison worker and inmate by being friendly to every prisoner he comes upon while on “the inside.” As he passes offenders, everyone gets a “good morning and a “have a great day.”
“Being removed from society and coming to prison is punishment enough,” he said. “I could be regimental but I don’t prefer that style. I’m not here to do that.”King got his first taste of prison administrative duties as a finance director at Oak Park Heights. The move was a “demotion” in terms of pay at the time, but the career side step helped him eventually reach the ranks of associate warden at Minnesota’s Rush City facility in 1999. From there, he worked as a CFO at Department of Corrections central offices before ultimately landing his first warden job at Stillwater in 2008.
One of his first duties as warden was dealing with microphones being shoved in his face. A meticulous tunnel escape attempt had just been discovered by prison staff. King said the tunnel was about half way done when it was found.
“It was a great lesson in our vulnerabilities,” King said. “It speaks to the creativity of (some prisoners). It was ingenious.”
Last May, King transferred as warden to Lino Lakes by his own choice.
“I’ve spent my whole life at higher-custody prisons and wanted to see the byproduct of what corrections provides,” he said. “I wanted to see some of those success stories.”
At Stillwater, there are less than 50 treatment beds for 1,600 prisoners. At the lower custody-level Lino Lakes, nearly 600 beds are used for treatment for 1,300 prisoners. King said he enjoys overseeing the more treatment-based facility, where there aren’t as many assaults, mini-riots or similar uprisings against authority.
“There are 1,300 guys here who don’t want to be here,” he said. “It can be a violent place at times, so you try to step away to separate the home and work life as much as you can.”
He compares his job as warden to being mayor of a small town, except nearly every citizen is a criminal who will one day be released back into society. It’s his job to cut down on the reoffenders.
He tries to do so in a compassionate way. He attends inmate GED ceremonies and other evening events. He shakes hands, and for a second of eye contact, feels like a father that many prisoners never had.
For more stories on Lino Lakes prison people and programs, visit www.quadcommunitypress.com.