After 40 Years, Daniels Said It Was “Time to Let It Go”

Three men posing for a picture in a ballroom
Friday, December 13, 2019 - 2:44pm

Former warden Dennis Daniels looks back with a sense of pride and accomplishment on his nearly 40 years of service in the only fulltime work environment he ever knew. 

Daniels, 61, who retired in November, said, “This is a tough job to walk away from, especially when this is what you’ve done every day of your working life. It’s in your bones. There’s something in those of us in corrections that want to get up and go to prison. I’ve been told ‘Maybe there’s something wrong with your head?’ But it’s all I’ve ever done.”

Fresh out of college in 1980, Daniels started as a correctional officer at Caledonia Correctional Institution. At that time, Daniels needed a job and was introduced to prisons by his college roommate, who was a sergeant at the former Tillery Correctional Center. “All I knew about prisons was when there was an escape, we’d lock our house and wait for the offender to get captured. I never knew I’d be in that environment,” Daniels said.

Daniels worked at both Tillery and Caledonia before moving to the new Pasquotank CI in 1997 as a captain. That began a journey that eventually took him to Odom, Rivers Correctional Institution (where he was the facility superintendent), and then back to Pasquotank. 

In 2011, Daniels was transferred to Maury Correctional Institution, a relatively new close custody facility in need of “a fixer:” someone to straighten out personnel and offender issues. Daniels said he was told that working at Maury could’ve been a career-defining position after the administrator of the facility was removed. 

“There were a lot of things going wrong and a lot of work to be done,” Daniels said. “Staff morale was low and they needed someone to be there to get programs going. I’d never seen anything like it. The staff was receptive to someone who was going to stay there. They needed consistency because they had gone through two administrators that had not stayed there for a length of time. We initiated inmate programs, the Therapeutic Diversion Unit, the Veteran’s dorms and staff activities. It made a big difference. I think it became one of the better 1,000-bed facilities but I’m not going to take credit. It took many people to make it work.”

Former Director of Prisons George Solomon said Daniels was the go-to person for any prison situation. Part of it was his experience but another was the way he dealt with difficulties.

“He was always a dedicated employee who led by example,” said Solomon, who retired in 2017 after 33 years working in prisons. “He worked very diligently to foster a team effort. He always led the way and worked in difficult situations. But no matter how tough it was, he kept his sense of humor and would encourage others around him. He always kept things positive.” 

After his work at Maury, Daniels decided it was time to retire. He said, “in 2015, I wanted to go home. I went to Farmville and met with Mr. Solomon at Bojangles. He told me he needed me to stay there and give him more help so I stayed there.”

Solomon said, “I think he made a good decision to stay with us. He was a very dedicated employee and always gave his full attention to the job. If you went to him with a problem, you’d never have to follow up.”

Daniels said he thought he’d be at Maury until he could really retire. But on Oct. 12, 2017, those plans changed during the failed escape attempt and murder of four employees at Pasquotank. As a member of the Prison Emergency Response Team (PERT), Daniels was sent to Pasquotank to do whatever was needed to return things to as normal as possible. He didn’t know that his return to the facility would eventually include becoming the warden. 

“I was told what happened and to get there as fast as I can,” he said. “I was there in two hours and there was chaos. But I function better in chaos. I’ve learned to deal with it but not dwell on it. If you play it out in your mind, it will take a toll on you. I don’t know how I managed not to let it get to me because I’ve seen some things in my career.

“(When he was asked to become warden) They told me it was a no-brainer that I needed to go there, but I was like a child kicking and screaming. But when I sat down and thought it through, I was the best choice. I had been there. I knew the staff. The attitude I took to Maury to fix those problems I could not take to Pasquotank. Staff was afraid, timid. I’d say hello to staff and they’d start crying. I had to be someone who was there to get the job done but understand what the staff was dealing with. We’ve made good progress but some staff still have a ways to go.”

While Daniels spent a career helping others, he’s received an outpouring of support from the correctional community since June when he was diagnosed with cancer that started from what he thought was a simple toothache. The cancer was discovered through a tumor after he had a tooth extraction. He said he’s responded well to the aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments and will focus on his heath and spending time with his family.

“Some people asked me not to go,” Daniels said. “You do not know how long you’re going to live. I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I’ll miss the routine and miss the staff but it’s time to go. At some point, there comes a time where you have to let it go and pass the torch. 

“I’ve had staff from all over the state come to see me, call or send cards. The outpouring of love is something you can never imagine. We are a big family and take care of each other. I appreciate that.”  

Daniels said if he could leave a message for correctional staff, it’s take something you’ve learned from many people and use it daily.

“You have to know the people you’re working with,” he said. “Corrections is a very rewarding career. You have the opportunity to grow inside the department. Every day something different happens. This job is certainly not boring, for sure. It’s challenging, but very rewarding. 

“Everyone has something in life they enjoyed. I was built for this and community service. I learned things from different people. In every situation there are different ways to handle it. I took away pieces from people, and you need to use that to mold you and your staff. 

“I’ve told people I’ve found myself closer to the Lord as a result of working in a prison. I’ve pulled experiences from church, what I’ve experienced myself or through life’s teachings to get through a difficult moment.

“It’s funny but when I left Maury to go back to Pasquotank, the Maury people told the folks at Pasquotank that you’d never see the true Dennis Daniels. You got the watered-down version. Maybe the folks at Pasquotank got to see the real Dennis Daniels.”

Jerry Higgins, Communications Officer