SHERIDAN — Nineteen years ago, Lt. Emily Heizer was a petite, 20-year-old woman beginning her career at the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office as a detention officer. For the first year, she wasn’t sure she wanted to stick around. It was shocking to see and hear what goes on behind jail walls.
No one openly doubted her, but Heizer said she felt she had a lot to prove to herself. Confidence came with time. Today, Heizer’s small stature encompasses a full career of interpersonal and tactical skills. With the option to retire at the end of this year, Heizer said working at the Sheridan County Detention Center has taught her some people will reform and others won’t. But overall, people aren’t so bad.
Detention Deputy Cory Main once intended to become a nurse but found law enforcement as a different way to help people.
She has been at the SCDC for three years.
“I had a lot of people in law enforcement help me,” Main said. “So it opened my eyes that I could help people in this profession as well.”
Main is one of four female officers at the SCSO — just enough to have one on each shift. The Sheridan Police Department and Sheridan College Campus Police each have one female officer. As of 2017, fewer than 15% of officers nationwide are women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Heizer said it’s difficult to prepare for a detention position because, unlike officers and deputies who are out interacting with the public, few people see what detention officers do. She didn’t know what she was getting into on day one.
Main worried about feeling as though she had to prove herself as a woman in the position when she first came into the job. But she was immediately accepted and valued because women are needed in law enforcement, Main said. Her favorite day on the job was this past Christmas Day, when a sergeant brought the team a meal at work.
Still, sometimes Main asks herself, “I went to college for this?” On days when using force is necessary or she endures a week during which someone threatens her family each day, the job can be draining.
As an administrator for the past 10 years, Heizer said it has been difficult to recruit and retain female staff. Main, as a single mother, has missed some of her children’s birthdays and sports events while working 12-hour shifts. Heizer said she was fortunate to transition to an 8 to 5 position when she started having children. Neither woman would give up the job they love.
It takes a unique and strong personality to come back every day but seeing people who have been helped through their work is rewarding, Main and Heizer said. Some people find religion in jail, or a period of sobriety and clarity that’s life changing.
Their children are proud of and inspired by their mothers.
Main said she enjoys volunteering for community events to show young girls they could be in law enforcement too.
Whether a petite woman or a muscular man, each detention officer has identical responsibilities, apart from who they are required to strip search. Having men and women on the force is helpful for navigating different booking situations as well, Heizer said.
The team decides on a case by case basis who they think will best facilitate a smooth booking without incident or force. Some people are more cooperative interacting with a woman when they’re intoxicated, while others might respond better to a male officer.
Each detention officer has strengths that support the work environment, which is more like a family, Main said. They rely on each other to make it home every night.
Main said she was blind to the issues in her community before becoming a detention officer. Increased awareness has transformed her into an overprotective mother, she said. She’s a mom who sees things other parents don’t see.
Still, Main said she maintains an outlook that people aren’t just “criminals,” they’re people who made mistakes — sometimes repeatedly. Respect goes both ways. No one could do the job well if they judged every person involved with drugs, alcohol or violence, she said.
Heizer said there are some policies and procedures they are required to follow to the letter.
But in many cases, a little leniency and maternal skills like patience go a long way.