When a new warden took the helm at Graceville Correctional Facility last week, an unusual opportunity came her way on her third day in the post. Laura E. Bedard had come into the job two days before GCF held its annual “tailgate luncheon” for the community at the Graceville Civic Center. Under the privatized management of Corrections Corporation of America, GCF is home to 1,884 adult male offenders.
Bedard met several key adult community leaders as well a group of school-age up-and-comers at the civic center luncheon.
A press release from the prison put it this way: “When you think of prison, FFA, cheerleaders and marching bands is not what normally comes to mind, but CCA Graceville incorporated all of these in their annual Community Tailgate Luncheon.” The civic center was transformed into a football stadium for the day, highlighting Graceville High School’s cheerleaders and the Marching Tigers band. The GHS FFA catered the event, serving pork loin plates and greeting guests as they arrived.
Bedard was introduced to the community by CCA’s Learning and Development manager, Angela Geisinger, who described Bedard as a “new source of strength” in the prison’s overall mission to rehabilitate inmates toward the goal of successfully re-entering society.
Bedard said she was grateful for the opportunity to meet so many community leaders and future leaders so soon after stepping into her new role at GCF. She said she came away impressed with the prison’s community outreach and the community’s response to the overture.
During the administration of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Bedard served three years as the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. Later, after she moved into the private sector of corrections work, she got the attention of Gov. Rick Scott. He asked her to be his transition team as he prepared to set his own goals for corrections and public safety.
Bedard made a name for herself nationally in 2006 when she implemented the state’s first-ever “dogs into prison” program. While still serving as Deputy Secretary of DOC, she worked with leadership at Taylor Correctional Institution in Perry to begin a pilot program that has spread like wildfire through the state’s prison system to include an estimated 30-40 such programs around Florida. GCF has a dog program in which inmates help train dogs to eventually become drug and bomb finders.
Beard’s own love of animals led her to look into the possibility, she said. “I had seen some programs in other states, and I had a friend who ran an animal shelter and was facing the possibility of having to euthanize some animals and didn’t want to have to do that,” Bedard explained. “I went to Duffy Harrison, who was warden at Taylor, and told him I wanted to try. He said, ‘come on’, and it worked well. The dogs bring a different feel to a prison,” Bedard continued. “It provides staff an opportunity to communicate with the inmates in ways that we don’t normally have a chance to do. Instead of just barking orders, they can have a conversation about the dogs and their care. It brings a calm to the place, and it teaches the inmates thing they might not even be aware they’re learning; things like parenting, patience, and the ability to care about something, sometimes for the first time in their lives. The dogs live with the inmates and an alternate handler, so it’s like having a kid in a way. At Graceville, we have two-story cells, so the primary handler lives downstairs with the dog and the upstairs inmate is the alternative handler. That’s another way the dogs help, because those inmates have to communicate about the animals and that helps them build their interpersonal skills.”
Bedard said she’s open to looking at an additional animal program at Graceville as she gets her feet on the ground there. In some prison dog programs, inmates train dogs to become aids to the handicapped or in other skills. Some prisons even have cat programs meant to help inmates establish a caring bond with the animals that officials hope will eventually positively transform their human interactions.
Meanwhile, Bedard is re-acclimating herself to North Florida. Most recently serving as CCA’s warden at Moore Haven Correctional Facility, a 985-bed facility for men in South Florida, Bedard is originally from Leon County and has many friends in the Marianna area that she made throughout her corrections career. She knows Mike Crews, for instance, the Marianna native who is the current DOC Secretary. He was in charge of a Standards and Training Commission while she was Deputy Secretary of DOC. “I feel like I’m home,” Bedard said of moving back to this region of the state and into another community of DOC friends.
Bedard said she is happy working in the privatized sector of corrections and has no foreseeable plans to work directly for the state again.
Bedard’s interest in corrections goes back to her days as a student. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of New Hampshire, a Master’s Degree from Southern New Hampshire University and a Ph.D. from Florida State University. According to the press release from CCA, she has lectured around the world and has published more than 17 articles and book chapters related to corrections. She was a Florida State University professor for 17 years, from 19889 to 2005, and during that time ran an intern program in the school’s College of Criminology.
During her ensuing direct professional life in corrections, she was on the Correctional Privatization Commission under the Jeb Bush administration.
The American Crimina Justice Association recently recognized Bedard with the David Fogel Award for her contributions to the corrections profession. He is credited with introducing CCA's new values campaign, called "PRIDE" -- an acronym which stands for Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Duty and Excellence.
Bedard replaces former GCF warden Jason Ellis, who transferred to a CCA facility in Idaho.
“ I’m very, very, happy to be here, and was happy to see the communications meeting last week. So many people attended," she said. "We had the high school students, the mayor came out, and it was really an amazing experience.”
Graceville Mayor Charles Holman was quoted in the CCA press release about the institution’s place in its home community, from comments he made as he addressed the crowd at the luncheon. “When you drive into Graceville you will see a sign that reads, ‘Welcome to Graceville, where the living is easy.’ I want to thank CCA; they are a big part of our community and have done and continue to do so much for this area.” Speaking then directly to CCA/GCF representatives, Holman continued. “You have helped Graceville in so many ways, and we want to keep you here—you all are our family and we are proud to have you.”