Working for the Ohio Department of Corrections is not a career that Ronette Burkes ever envisioned for herself.
Now, the new warden at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville can't imagine doing anything else.
"I didn't go to school thinking that I would be in corrections. I always had aspirations of going to law school," said Burkes, who took over last month from former warden Ginine Trim.
Trim accepted a post as deputy director of mental health and behavioral programming with the Ohio Department of Youth Services.
Burkes earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Akron and began working at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center in the legal department as a victim advocate. That's where her heart stayed.
"I worked with survivors of assault -- mostly women, a few men and a lot of children -- and just became passionate about victims' issues," she said.
Soon she began volunteering at the Office of Victim Services at the Ohio Department of Corrections.
In 2000, she took a paid position coordinating the program for which she had been volunteering and went from there to jobs with the Ohio Parole Authority and the Office of Prisons, where she was administrative assistant to the deputy director.
"It gave me an opportunity to get in every prison in the state," Burkes said. "I've had so many different experiences, from Level 5 security reviews at our Supermax prison in Youngstown to just speaking, presenting and running programs in other prisons. So I've had a lot of different experiences."
Eventually, Burkes was appointed the deputy warden at the Franklin Pre-Release Center (now Franklin Medical Center) in Columbus.
"I spent a couple of years as a deputy warden of special services and ops," she said. "I worked with women there and loved it. It took me back to my roots and my passion because I came from the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center."
Along the way, Burkes earned a master's degree in criminal justice administration from Tiffin University.
She also took advantage of an opportunity to transfer to the Ohio Reformatory for Women as the deputy warden of special services.
"I've been here the last two years and I love it," she said. "I feel like I was put on earth to do exactly what I do now, which is working with women and helping women.
"I believe what we really do here is save lives," she said. "If we provide the women here with programming, with education, with opportunities that they didn't have, that changes the way they think, that changes their thought process and behavior, then when we send them back out to society, they won't create any more victims."
Burkes said it's important for the reformatory to be good neighbors with the community of Marysville and to break down the barriers to let residents know the prisoners are just people.
"Some of them made horrible mistakes. I'll never minimize that," she said. "I'll never minimize crime because crime is horrible. But most of the people here are going home."
Burkes said she believes the women who are incarcerated at the reformatory need to be trained to be employed and offered programs to help them change their lifestyles.
"We are part of the Marysville community and we care about this community. It's important we reach out," she said. "The prison has worked with the Hope Center and allowed it to participate in some of the programs. Inmates also do community work, such as refurbishing the Uptown benches for the city of Marysville, cleaning Fairbanks schools and working to clear trash around the highways.
Burkes said she's learned in working with both victims and prisoners that the two worlds are not that far apart.
"There are more similarities than I recognized when I started out in victims services back in Cleveland," she said. "People are people. Pain is pain. One of the things I didn't realize is how many of the folks in here have been victimized as well.
"I think I'll always be a victim advocate at heart," Burkes said. "I will always want to make sure we're not creating more victims, whether they're out there or in here."