Author: Jerry Higgins, Communications Officer
Bertie Correctional Institution Sgt. Robert Russell is a trailblazer in his northeastern North Carolina county. Not only was he a member of the first Public Safety Cadet Program class back in 2017 at Bertie High School, he also was the first member of the program to be hired by the state prison in 2018.
Sgt. Russell is the perfect example of the benefits of the program. He graduated with the class of 2017 and earned a program certificate from Roanoke-Chowan Community College in Ahoskie for public safety technology. However, because he was a year too young to apply to work in a prison, Russell spent a year working in an auto parts store before he was hired by DPS in 2018.
“He was a hard-working young man while attending high school classes,” said former Eastern Regional Coordinator Rhonda Hendricks, who is now the associate warden for custody and operations at Eastern Correctional Institution in Maury. “After graduation, he went to work full time and did not forget about the corrections profession from part of his studies with the Cadet program and was reminded that he had opportunity for a career right there in his community.”
Russell began working at Bertie Correctional in July of 2018 as a correctional officer and completed basic training a month later. He is the type of employee that program founder Gwen Norville would have been proud of. Norville, who passed away in late 2017, was not only one of the founders of the Cadet program, she strongly encouraged young people and colleagues that instead of going through the motions and collecting a paycheck, keep learning and improving yourself. That was exactly what Russell did and continues to do.
Last month, Russell applied to become a member of the Prison Emergency Response Team. He completed the tryouts and was made a member of the Eastern Region PERT team. Then, earlier this month, Russell was promoted to Correctional Sergeant II, all accomplishments achieved in about two years.
“I thought the cadet program would open up more opportunities for me,” said Russell, whose uncle worked for the Williamston Sheriff’s Department. “When I first joined, I thought being a correctional officer would make things easier in the criminal justice field. But I wanted to work in the prison and I don’t see myself going elsewhere.”
Russell now is an advocate for the one-year cadet program, which is for any Bertie County junior or senior high school student interested in the criminal justice field. The student can apply during their junior year and study a criminal justice curriculum jointly designed by Bertie County Schools and the Department of Public Safety through (now) Martin Community College focused on developing integrity, leadership and support for the community.
While taking standard high school and science-technology-engineering-math courses, students take an additional six college-level courses geared for adult thinkers. The coursework lasts through their senior year. To remain in the program, the cadets must maintain a 2.50 grade point average. Once they successfully completed the program, the students earned 18 credits toward a two- or four-year degree in criminal justice.
The cadets also perform community service events every year. This year the group provided a safe place to hold a Trunk and Treat at Bertie High School. They also took a tour to speak with the prison administrators and staff, went to a 911 call center and witnessed how calls come in and calls go out in the field. They visited a magistrate’s office, as well as watched a court session in Bertie County and met the judge.
“I am very proud of this staff member coming from Bertie High School and the Cadet Program,” said Bertie CI associate warden Demetrius Clark, himself a 1992 Bertie HS graduate. “He has demonstrated that he is a hard-working individual who is dedicated to being a correctional professional. I think he should be considered a role model for any student attending the cadet program at Bertie High School, and Bertie Correctional is proud to have him on our team.”
Russell has had the opportunity to visit other prisons across the state as part of the PERT team. He has seen the good and bad of working in a prison, including performing life-saving procedures to try to save an offender who died in an apparent suicide in August 2019. But he said that was not the toughest part of the job so far.
“The difficult part is learning how to carry yourself as an officer and enforce the rules,” Russell said. “The first thing I would tell anyone in this area who wants to be part of the program is that it’s a great thing to stick with it. Bertie is a great place to work. You get good support from the staff. I really enjoy working here.”