For the past seven years, Patricia Melton has coordinated staff, inmates and outside partners as the Manager of Grants, Education & Vocational Services for the Shelby County Division of Corrections to foster a just and rehabilitative incarceration system built on cutting-edge research and evidence-based policy. This is just Patricia’s latest role in a four-decade career distinguished by serving the most vulnerable members of society, from foster children to the disabled to the incarcerated. We sat down with Patricia in her office at Shelby Farms (known until the 1960s as Shelby County Penal Farm) to learn more about the ways she is creating a better community by preparing others to re-enter it.
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Ellendale, Tennessee, which has now been absorbed into Bartlett. I lived in the Bartlett area all my life, with the exception of about 10 years — three in Indiana and seven in California. I graduated from Bartlett High School, where Wolfchase Mall is. We used to pick greens over there.
What was your educational path?
My bachelor’s is in social work, but I’ve never worked as a social worker. I minored in sociology, so that was more fascinating to me. My master’s is in management and leadership, which is kind of a good combo, considering how much I’ve done from a management-supervisor standpoint.
What are the particular challenges of working within corrections?
This is the most challenging, because I see so much hope and I see so much failure. It’s a constant battle for me.
One of my favorite stories is about this man walking along the beach, and he’s throwing starfish back into the ocean, and there’s another passerby just watching him stroll and throw them out there. And the stranger finally says to the man, “Why are you doing that? That’s not going to make a difference. There are so many of them washed up on the shore.” And he picks one up and throws it into the ocean, and says, “It made a difference to that one.” And that’s really how I have to approach what I do.
What are the most surprising aspects of your work?
Working with the college internship program brings me a lot of personal joy, because I get to show them the side to corrections that’s the softer side. They’re able to see that we’ve got education, we’ve got vocational programming, we’ve got data here, we’ve got evidence-based curricula here — a whole bunch of stuff that they just didn’t know existed, because you pass by the place, and you just have no idea what goes on behind the walls.
How has your career impacted your family life?
One of the things that I’ve been truly blessed with, regardless of how demanding my jobs were, they always allowed me to fulfill my greatest joy, and that’s having raised Dr. Courtney Melton, my 33-year-old daughter. I had lots of flexibility in my schedule to be the kind of mother that I felt I needed to be for her.
How did your own family life influence your path?
We all talk sometimes about being a product of our environment, and I think I am. My dad was an alcoholic. He died of complications, at 75, a few years ago. And I say that I’m a product of my environment because I don’t drink, because I saw what that did. When most people think about being a product of their environment, they look at it negatively.
How does your awareness of that influence shape your perspective on your work?
It’s given me a tolerance for things. Because you know how some people, when you have dysfunction within your family, you just kind of run from it and hide from it. But we would take ours and put it right in the living room for anybody to see. And it didn’t matter, because that was family and you didn’t turn your back on family.
People don’t necessarily connect social service with the administration side of corrections. How does your background help you in this role?
I think everything that I’ve done under the umbrella of social service has helped shape who I am. I don’t take it lightly when it comes to our stakeholders and our clients, and that’s really how I look at this population.
What are some of the programs you’re working with?
We’ve been doing anger management with the females forever; they go through the curriculum, they’re still angry. So, doing the research and trying to stay on the cutting edge of what happens in corrections, I realized that you have to attack the trauma, because most women, being here, there’s been some trauma. So what we did was put in place a curriculum called Trauma-Informed Care.
Hope 2 Hire is the one grant we have that has private funding. It goes without saying the training is done here, lots of post-release services, so it’s a really nice grant. Any time you’ve got someone in the community knowing the plight inside these walls, and they come to you asking, “What can I do?” — that’s pretty special stuff.
What keeps you motivated?
Keeping a halfway decent work-life balance. During grant season, it’s just really hectic because none of my duties go away, so it’s all out of sync. But one of the things that I always boast about is that I sleep at night. I don’t take work home with me anymore. I used to.
How do you spend your free time?
I have very strong family ties, and I love spending time with my sisters. My sisters are my best friends. I love cooking, and I love gardening; those are real stress-relievers for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that exercise helps.[whispers] I don’t like it, but I’ve learned that it helps.
Do you have a most memorable success story?
Of all places, it was in Indiana. Working with a teenage diabetic is very difficult. Couple that with the fact that Chad was also in foster care, and he loved eating. I had to get him to understand that he could eat anything that he wanted to if he rode his bike every day. He finally bought into that. After I left, the foster mom found me through the agency that I worked for, because she wanted me to know that Chad had continued to ride his bike and had won several medals for bike-riding. That’s one of my favorite stories.
Where are your favorite places to take guests to Memphis?
In the spring, I really love the Botanic Gardens. I like the Metal Museum. It’s just so different. I like people-watching downtown. People are just fascinating to me. You can conjure up all kinds of stories in your head.
What is your best advice?
I’m very close to my siblings and my nieces and nephews as well, and I’ve told them all this because I believe it to be true: Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.
What three things can you not live without?
Avocado, meat and my high-heel shoes. People will see me on the weekend and be like, “You still have heels on?”
Thank you, Patricia, for sharing your life lessons, incredible work and valuable insights with us!
Thank you to Mary Kate Steele for today’s awesome photos of Patricia.
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