Career Perseverance and Reflection – Rosalind Ellington

Rosalind Ellington has seen countless changes throughout her career journey. In persevering through her education and career challenges, she has managed to come full circle undaunted, and in a position to give back what she’s learned.

Although her experience and perspective is that of a Black woman, many can identify with Ellington’s human experience in the forthcoming Q&A:

When did you become interested in a career in the legal field?

I was a psychology major my freshman year at the University of Maryland, but it wasn’t interesting to me at all. My family called me home, so I did return home and enrolled at Monmouth College in Neptune, NJ.  I found out they had a Criminal Justice program and thought it was interesting, and that I might want to be a lawyer or a paralegal. So I changed my major to Criminal Justice and got my Bachelor’s degree.

When I graduated, I could not find a job. I literally tried everywhere as young kids do, who are fresh out of college; people tell them, “You don’t have enough experience, you need experience, we can’t hire you.” I thought, How are you going to gain experience unless you work somewhere? So, I decided to get my Paralegal Certification because I wanted to be a lawyer. But guess what? After I did that, it was the same thing: I was told, “You don’t have enough experience, you need more experience.” So I thought, Boy, this is a catch 22.

Someone suggested I work with the government, and that maybe I could get into my field that way, because the government has lawyers. So I was trying my best to get a job as a civilian with government agencies and again – it was the same thing! A friend of mine suggested I work with the Bureau of Prisons. The only positions I saw were for correctional officers. I thought, If I can’t get a job doing what I want right now, I need a job that is going to give me health insurance, a pension, a 401K, support to go back to school – maybe get some more education to be a lawyer. So that’s what I did. I ended up working as a C.O. for the Bureau of Prisons. What’s interesting is, I didn’t even realize what that entire agency was all about, except that it was about prisoners and guards. I thought I’d just do it for a little while until I figured out what was next for me. Once I got the job, I found out it’s an entire world – an entire community of staff and inmates – and everything that those inmates need are at these prisons, which include counselors, case managers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and everything! I didn’t intend to start there, but once I got there I realized I could still work in the legal field and do what I wanted to do – and what I went to school for. Working for this agency in the beginning, I didn’t know if I was going to stay forever until I realized they had a legal department and that I was going to enjoy it. It was going to be a stepping stone for what I wanted to do in the long run.

Were there any events that triggered you to want to work in the Criminal Justice field?

There weren’t any cases that led me to the field. I was very interested in civil rights, and the rights of women particularly; I saw how things worked in the real world and I thought that I maybe could make a difference. Even if I wasn’t going to be a lawyer and I was just going to be a paralegal, they teach you in all the fields through the certification program. You learn everything from real estate, to civil rights, and every type of law there is. There’s injustices in almost every aspect of legal, where you really could do some good.

How was it being the first woman to work as a Correction Officer at Fort Dix? 

When I got to Fort Dix prison in NJ, a former army base partially converted into a federal prison for male inmates in 1992, it was so large and there were two sides.  I don’t know if there were other female officers – I think there was a female lieutenant. But when I started working there in 1994 on the west side of the prison, there were only male staff there, and it was quite eye-opening. Some didn’t want to work with me because they thought with me being a short female, I wasn’t going to have their back. I got a lot of questions like, “Are you married?” and “Do you want to go out?” They never got physical, but they treated me like I was less because I was female. The male inmates were more respectful to me than the male officers. The whole time I worked with male inmates I never had any issues with them. And so I thought, I don’t think I’ll be doing this for very long. 

Then, one of the things that happened was, I was selected as the “Correctional Officer of the Month” out of everyone. And then people began to say, “She may be alright.”

Why did you transition out of Correctional work? 

I learned about the agency and the different things I could do.

What was the most enriching aspect of your work? 

I became a Paralegal for the prison staff. When inmates filed complaints, I was the one to answer their claims and their lawsuits. I became a “Subject Matter Expert” or SME for the Grievance Program for inmates. Staff contacted me, wardens, congressmen, the congress, and I guided them and recommended ways to do things, ways to answer lawsuits. I also answered subpoenas.  I see that as a big accomplishment because 30 years ago, I didn’t think I was going to stay – or be the person that judges, lawyers, congressmen, and staff would call for answers on how to do things, and improve things within the Grievance system. Knowing I did my job so well that people from various levels of the system contacted me for direction, is one of my biggest accomplishments.

Did your work still take place in a male-dominated field once you became a Paralegal? 

I have to be honest and say, yes. Most of the attorneys, staff and administrators were male and it was a predominantly male working environment, and a predominantly White male environment.

Was it difficult to work in such an environment? 

It wasn’t difficult for me and I can’t say I was held back in any way, but I believe it can be a struggle and may be for some women.

What would you say to women considering a career in the prison system?

Absolutely do it. Don’t get disillusioned. Keep trying for the positions you want. The system has gotten better with diversifying and including minorities. They have created programs and departments and mentors to guide minority women in moving up. 30 years ago I might not have felt that way, but I’d say go for it now.

What are your plans now that you’re retired? 

My plans are definitely to relax, travel and do some baking. But also some community service at women and family shelters in the capacity of free notary services, child care, resume-building and overall encouragement.

Career Perseverance and Reflection – Rosalind Ellington

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