By Daniel McCabe, BA’89
Think of all the prison flicks you’ve seen. Now, think about the wardens in those movies.
The men who run the penitentiaries in The Shawshank Redemption, The Longest Yard and Escape from Alcatraz tend to be nasty, cynical and vindictive.
Julie Cobb, BA’87, is no pushover, but she has a downright sunny disposition compared to those guys.
Cobb is the warden of Archambault Institution in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. It wasn’t the career she had in mind when she finished her McGill degree in psychology. Anglophones were underrepresented in federal government jobs in Quebec at the time and her boyfriend’s father was aware of attempts being made to rectify that. He urged her to send in an application. Cobb landed a position in Correctional Services Canada.
“I fell into the job by accident,” she recalls. If she was initially surprised to find herself working for Correctional Services, she was even more surprised when she realized how much she enjoyed it.
Last June, at the official change of command ceremony during which she became Archambault’s new warden, Cobb told the crowd, “I’ve had the greatest career.”
She worked her way up. She has been a correctional officer, a parole officer, a unit coordinator and the deputy warden of the Joliette Institution for Women.
“I never have two days that are the same – that’s what makes the job so interesting,” says Cobb. “We have more than 500 offenders here and almost 400 staff members. It’s like being in a little city.”
Cobb isn't a big fan of prison dramas like Oz or Prison Break. "When I come home at the end of a day, that's not what I want to watch." When asked if those shows portray prison life realistically, Cobb replies, "the day-to-day lives of inmates are much more mundane. Life is usually pretty boring for them."
Archambault is a medium-security facility. “We have every type of offender here,” says Cobb, “everything from two-year sentences to life sentences.” One of the prison’s most notorious inmates is Valeri Fabrikant, who murdered four of his colleagues at Concordia in 1992.
“When offenders come into the system, they’re assessed for their risk level,” Cobb explains. “That involves their capacity to follow rules, the risk they might pose to public safety and the risk of an escape attempt.” Archambault’s inmates “pose a medium level of risk.
“I’m responsible for the safety of everyone who works here and for the community that surrounds us. I don’t ever take that lightly,” says Cobb. She takes other aspects of her work very seriously too.
“A big part of our job here is to give [inmates] the tools they need to get their lives back on track,” says Cobb. “I really believe in that as a fundamental value.” Successful rehabilitation benefits everyone, she adds. “Almost all the inmates here get out of jail eventually.”
Archambault prisoners have access to job training, education programs and counselling. “We try to help them rebuild relationships with their family members,” says Cobb. Noting that many offenders arrive with addiction issues or other medical concerns, she adds, “We give them the opportunity to get their health back.
“In the end, it’s up to the individual,” says Cobb. “It’s up to them to use [the resources available] or not to use them.”
Cobb hopes they do. "There are so many factors in a lot of these guys' lives that contributed [to why they're here] -- sexual abuse, drugs, gang issues. Many of them started life off on the rough side. They didn't have the advantages that I enjoyed."
Cobb is careful to keep constant tabs on the environment inside Archambault. “When the climate [in a penitentiary] is crappy, there’s a lot of tension. There’s more fighting.” She regularly meets with an inmate committee (“You get useful feedback”) and receives daily briefings from her staff on what transpired during the previous 24 hours. “Walkthroughs are invaluable,” Cobb says. “Just walking around, talking with staff and inmates. I try to do that at least a couple of times a week.”
The warden in Cool Hand Luke famously lamented, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” That’s a problem that Cobb is determined to avoid.