Lessons Roberta Fields learned as a corrections officer
Published in 2019 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
on October 10, 2019
Updated on October 15, 2019
She’s never been an inmate, but prison has always been in the cards for Roberta Fields: She was raised near one, met her husband at another, and worked for years in corrections as both a case manager and correctional officer.
“I grew up in Shadyside, Ohio, right across the river from the West Virginia State Penitentiary,” she says. “When we were little kids and an inmate escaped, they would sound the whistle. We would hear it across the river; we were super fascinated.”
Fascinated as she was, Fields didn’t set foot in a prison until she attended Oral Roberts University in 1973, where she majored in social work. “I liked the idea of helping people and learning why people do what they do,” she says.
The major required that students work a 30-hour per-week practicum, but the Oklahoma Department of Corrections had a better offer. “[They] said if I worked 40 hours a week, they would pay me,” Fields says. “As a poor college student, I had the choice of working 30 hours for free, or 40 hours for pay. It wasn’t much of a dilemma. I got hired as a correctional officer at a men’s work release center in Tulsa.”
Only 21, Fields was in charge of a house full of individuals transitioning out of prison. But she was never scared. “These guys went out to their day jobs, so they were pretty unlikely to mess up,” she says. “I don’t think there were many females working there, but I was pretty comfortable with it; I didn’t carry a gun or have a weapon. All I had to do was keep track of their location, and make sure to do the count at night.”
When the state opened a coed work release center, she was hired as a case manager for female inmates. Fields helped the women get jobs, reintegrate with their families, and receive substance abuse counseling. She loved the work.
Her future husband, Larry, was head of the program. In 1980, he got an offer to serve as deputy warden at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, one of two prisons in Lexington. Then a couple, Fields wasn’t allowed to work for him, so she was hired for assessment and reception at the other medium-security prison in town.
Instead of aiding low-risk inmates, she now faced individuals of varying security levels, whom she would interview and enter into the prison system. Each day, Fields would walk through one set of doors that slammed shut behind her, then through another set of doors, and then another—until she was face-to-face with the convicted.
“I’d read a file about how a man murdered his mother and mutilated her body, and then you’d meet the guy,” she says, noting that she met with eight to 15 people per day. The experience took a toll.
“I remember the first time I saw a person in handcuffs and shackles, back in 1977. That’s a hard thing to do to a human being, and it bothered me,” Fields adds. “But by 1980, in Lexington, I remember meeting a 16-year-old who raped women in Tulsa, and I realized that he was probably going to be hurt in prison. And I wasn’t bothered by it. I had changed, and that scared me. I realized I had to do something else.”
Unlike her work at the release center, Fields didn’t feel she was helping the inmates and, after roughly a year, she left. Remembering a successful attorney-friend of her husband’s, she decided to head to law school.
“I knew I needed to do something else,” she says. “So why not law?”
Burned out on the criminal justice system, Fields focused on tax law at the University of Oklahoma, where she graduated in 1984. She then spent 27 years at Rainey, Ross, Rice and Binns before moving to McAfee & Taft in 2012.
Though now decades removed from her stints at prisons, one lesson has stuck. “The best thing about working in prisons were the interviews, when you could really listen to someone,” says Fields. “I think listening skills are really the link to all success. People will talk to you if you will listen; everybody has a story.”
By the Numbers
• In 2018, at a rate of 1,079 per 100,000 people, Oklahoma locked up a higher proportion of its residents than any other state—or country.
• In 2018, Oklahoma had the highest rate of women’s incarceration in the U.S.; 85 percent of those women were mothers.
• In 2015, one in five Oklahoma prisoners was locked up for drug possession.
Sources: Prison Policy Initiative, The New Yorker, ACLU