Bringing compassion to the correctional system
Retired Director, Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Dept.
Working two jobs and attending classes left Tim Ryan little time to take part in the demonstrations rocking the Berkeley campus during the late 1960s. But he remembers the “blue meanies,” the sheriff’s deputies assigned to Vietnam War protests.
A month after graduation, Ryan took a job with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy. A mere two years later, Ryan says, “I was a blue meanie.” One of his assignments was to cover war demonstrations on Berkeley streets.
“I’d seen it from the other side so I was sensitive to the fact that people have the right to make their statements about the government,” he says. “You just want to keep everyone safe.”
Ryan didn’t set out to work in law enforcement. He expected to be drafted and sent to Vietnam after college. But his draft lottery number portended a different future. He applied at the sheriff’s office because it paid better than an entry-level banking position and he was contemplating law school. For his first assignment, he and two other deputies provided security for 1,200 inmates at Santa Rita Jail. “Thank goodness the inmates knew what to do,” Ryan says, “because I sure didn’t.”
As Ryan grew accustomed to the job, he found that corrections work suited him. He attended the sheriff’s deputy academy, earned a master’s in public administration at Cal State East Bay, and spent 28 years working for the Alameda County Sheriff’s office, moving up in rank to captain. For ten years he served as commander of the Alameda County jails, the first of several roles overseeing correctional facilities in his 43-year career.
In 1998 he became chief of corrections for Santa Clara County, where his demeanor earned him the nickname “the sensitive John Wayne.” Four years later he was offered the chief of corrections post for the Orange County correctional system based in Orlando, Florida. His children married, Ryan saw it partly as a strategic move. “I thought being near Disney World might bring the grandchildren,” he says.
In 2007, Ryan became the director of Miami-Dade’s jail system, the largest jail system in Florida and the eighth largest in the United States. He was responsible for a $300 million budget, 2,800 employees, 7,000 inmates, and 2,500 others in community programs.
The business training he received at Cal served him well in running correctional facilities. “You have to have the ability to take a practical look at things and not jump to conclusions,” he says. “I think my education at Berkeley helped me do that.”
Compassion and being careful about the use of force are also essential. “Each jail has its own culture,” he says. “In Florida I found there wasn’t a lot of training on the job, so I changed that.”
Ryan retired in January 2014 and now runs Ryan Correctional Consulting Services, which helps jail operators prepare for accreditation. He also has more time with his wife, Sue, and their three grandchildren—though he and Sue now live in Miami, no longer next door to Disney World. —Mandy Erickson