Legendary IDOC administrator retires

Pam Sonnen speaks to IMSI inmates at a graduation ceremony in 2007
Sonnen speaks at a 2007 IMSI graduation.

BOISE, August 17, 2011 - Pam Sonnen started with the Idaho Department of Correction as a single mom who needed a job. On July 29, she retired following a 29-year career during which she helped raise the department’s professional standards, unite disparate institutions and blaze the trail for women working in corrections.

“Who’s going to miss Pam the most is the guy in the trench,” says retired IDOC Lt. Steve Shane. “She’d go the extra mile to help you. She’s an a-okay gal, and she was one of the first gals out there.”

Shane and about 100 of Sonnen’s friends, family members and current and former colleagues gathered at Meridian’s Storey Park at the conclusion of her last day of work to celebrate her long, successful career.

Speakers at the event praised Sonnen for her commitment to the fair treatment of staff and inmates, and they reminded her of some of the funny things that happened over the years. 

IMSI Deputy Warden Jimmie Crosby recalled how Sonnen helped develop the IDOC policy that prohibits altering or withholding food as a method of punishing inmates. Crosby said Sonnen’s effort started when a group of IMSI staff members  became angry with a group of inmates and decided to punish them by serving the inmates peanut butter sandwiches without jelly.

Crosby said Sonnen was a deputy warden at IMSI at the time and was opposed to food being used as a punitive tool, but said nothing to staff about the incident.  A short time later, however, IDOC adopted a formal prohibition on such practices, and with that, Crosby says, Sonnen’s nickname was born: Peter Pam.

As a token reminder of the incident, Crosby presented Sonnen with a jar of peanut butter and a t-shirt with the words, “Peanut Butter Princess.”

Sonnen began as a corrections officer at North Idaho Correctional Institution in Cottonwood. She quickly earned the respect of the inmates and her fellow officers for her common sense, and her firm but fair treatment of others. She was soon promoted and became the first female correctional sergeant in the history of the department.

“It was basically a good ol’ boy system,” Sonnen recalls.  “There was a lot of general harassment, and staff and inmates were not respected.”

In 2001, Sonnen became the warden at Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise. The following year she was named a deputy administrator and assigned to Central Office. She went on to become chief of the Prisons Division and warden at South Idaho Correctional Institution. 

“I think the biggest change from when I started is the level of the professionalism,” Sonnen says. “The department was very fractured, and people’s egos ruled rather than what was good for all.”

Sonnen says IDOC also suffered from a strained relationship with the news media and a poor public image as a result. “We were referred to as the ‘black hole,’” she says. “No one at that time cared much about offering opportunities for change.”

Several speakers talked about Sonnen’s willingness to mentor young staff members, and the opportunities she gave people to grow as individuals. IMSI Warden Randy Blades recalled how Sonnen advised him to “put people over processes” when he first became a warden. Blades said her advice has served him well.

“No one surpasses you,” Jeff Zmuda, deputy chief of the Bureau of Prisons told Sonnen as he presented her with a U.S. flag that has flown over all of IDOC’s correctional facilities. “No one has the gut instinct and intuitive nature of Pam Sonnen.”

The executive director of the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole, Olivia Craven, gave Sonnen a symbolic gold seal that releases her from parole and thanks her for 29 years of service to the state of Idaho. “If you are not enjoying retirement enough, you may be rearrested,” Craven warned.

“We are all indebted to Pam,” says IDOC Director Brent Reinke. “Because of her, the people of Idaho are safer and countless offenders have been held accountable and given opportunities to change.”

Sonnen says she plans on enjoying the rest of the summer before deciding what she wants to do with the next chapter of her life. “Someone gave me some advice: take care of your body, mind and soul. I think I will try that for a change.”




Story published: 08/12/2011
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