New Warden Ready to Make a Positive Difference in Wheeler
Wheeler County Correctional Facility’s new warden, who was introduced to the community at an event sponsored by the Wheeler County Chamber of Commerce in Alamo on June 23, is eager to make a positive difference both inside and outside the prison.
Shawn Gillis, a native of Vidalia who has an extensive background in the corrections continued from page
field, is excited to be back on home turf and looks forward to advancing the goals of the Core Civicowned prison. With 3,000 beds, the Wheeler prison is the largest prison in the state. Gillis also expressed that he is eager to continue the positive relationship between the community and Core Civic, which in 2023 is marking its 25th year in Wheeler County.
Gillis, who has been with Core Civic for 24 years, started his career with the company in 1999 at what was then a new facility in Wheeler County. “I’m glad to be back home,” Gillis told the group gathered at the Chamber. He said he recognized some people in the room, including Alamo Police Chief Karen Zanders with whom he had worked in the community previously.
Gillis stepped into a career in corrections at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville in 1994, following his return from military duty in Iraq. After graduating from Vidalia High School in 1988, he joined the U.S. Army and was deployed to Iraq as support staff for front-line forces. He said the military structure he experienced in his five years of Army service influenced his decision to venture into the field of corrections.
After five years with the state prison system, Gillis joined the staff at the new Wheeler Correctional Facility as a correctional officer. He was promoted to chief of security, and after being promoted to assistant warden in 2008, he transferred to a Core Civic facility in Florida. Following service at two Core Civic facilities in Florida, Gillis transferred to McRae Correctional Facility in 2013 where he was assistant warden of operations. In 2018, he was promoted to the position of warden and transferred to the Adams County Correctional Facility in Natchez, Mississippi. This Core Civic facility contracted with the federal immigration and custom services under Title 42. “My facility was where they came straight from the border,” he said of the inmates housed in Natchez.
“I have had a plethora of experiences in my career, from working with female offenders in Florida, to working for five years with Homeland Security,” Gillis told the group assembled at the Chamber offices last Friday. In his second full week on the job in Wheeler County, Gillis said his first order of business has been getting acquainted and reacquainted with the community and the facility and its staff. “The facility is larger. They have added about 500 more beds,” he said.
He told the group that he isn’t bothered by rumors of private prisons like Wheeler County Correctional Facility being taken over by the government. “The government cannot offer what we offer in the private sector such as educational programs and training in the trades which give inmates a future once they leave the system and which reduce recidivism.
“As long as we can provide what we provide, government cannot shut down privatization. Our equipment and communications are better and our surveillance is better. As long as we provide the best technology, the best (in-prison) educational services, and vocation and trades opportunities, we will be an asset to the state.”
As an example of the facility’s effectiveness, Gillis cited a recent incident that thwarted a drone delivery of contraband. “We have a drone detection system which only six days ago detected someone trying to fly a drone into our facility. Our drone detectors went off, we contacted the local police, and someone was arrested, and the drugs were recovered.”
He added, “But it does not matter what kind of systems you have in place, what kind of game plan you have, if you don’t hire people with integrity to do the job. We are going to try our best to hire more of the right people and put in the right places.”
Gillis said one of his short-term goals is to rebuild the facility staff. Like all correctional systems, the prison at Wheeler County is experiencing a high turnover rate with correctional officers. “We are 80 plus security officers down,” he said, noting he wants to hire at least 40 persons to train in the next three months to increase the staff by 50%.
“Not all of them are leaving voluntarily,” he said of staff loss. All prisons are having issues with guards who “can’t decide if they want to be a prison employee or an inmate,” Gillis said, emphasizing that prison rules and the law will be stringently enforced. “I am somebody who will give anybody a chance, but it is about making good choices. I tell employees: you may make a decision about what you do, but you will never pick the consequences, so whatever your decisions are, make sure they are right.”
Gillis said of his management philosophy, “If you are a leader, you have to have the emotional intelligence to get the best out of people where they are. The message has to be sent about consequences but you have to make sure your leaders understand that they are nobody without their people in the field doing their jobs.”
He said that among the issues with which the facility is dealing is gang activity. “I want to make sure we have all of the equipment necessary to protect and enable our staff so we are giving them everything they need.” He said he is a big believer is supporting the staff and rewarding those who are doing their jobs well. “We try to hire the best people, put positive procedures in place, show recognition and appreciation, and hopefully, day by day, you can get better. Working together is the key. When all of us serve a purpose, everything we do comes together. Teamwork will make it happen,” he assured. But he asserted, as warden, the buck stops with him.
After having been in the field of corrections for 29 years., Gillis doesn’t plan to move again, and he said this makes his wife, Jacqueline, a retired Food Lion corporate office employee and also a Vidalia native, very happy. The couple has three sons and seven grandchildren whom they are looking forward to seeing more often. Gillis admitted that he might consider another promotion to managing director within the Core Civic system, but otherwise he plans for Wheeler to be his last location as a warden.“ I have been trying to get home for a long time.”
“I want to be the right leader to have the right impact on the people in my custody and for the young people for whom we are trying to set role models. I will rely on my belief in God to set the right example; and anytime you are being guided by God, you will have the right impact.”