Lt. Bernice Heath didn’t plan to stay long when she walked through the doors of the Aiken County detention center on March 4, 1994, to start her job as an officer. But she did, and on Wednesday – 19 years to the day after she started – Heath left the Doris C. Gravitt Detention Center, retiring at age 67.
“It’s bittersweet. I’m proud to have reached this goal, but after so long, these people become like family,” she said at a drop-in held in her honor on Monday. “It’s been a long ride. It’s been bumpy, it’s been smooth, but it’s been a good ride.”
Heath recalled that she was a single mother studying nursing when someone asked her about working at the jail.
“I hated it (nursing),” she said. “One of the instructors there was a nurse at the jail. I said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not gonna do this.’ She said, ‘Well, how would you like to work at the jail?’”
Heath said working at a jail never occurred to her.
“I had to have a job, and this was the first one that came along, and I was gonna do this until I figured out what to do,” she said. “The more I got into it, the more I liked it. Then, when the opportunity came to go somewhere else, I didn’t want to.”
Heath said she started out “on the floor.”
“Just a jailer, a turnkey – whatever they called them,” she said. “They called us everything, but we were detention officers.”
After working on the floor for about six months, Heath said she was promoted to sergeant, and later to lieutenant. She eventually became the lieutenant in the jail’s classification section, where she classifies inmates’ security status based on their charges, but also looking at past convictions, past behavior and current behavior.
“I didn’t go to school or anything; I just figured out how to do it,” she said of learning about classification. “I would go in there at night and classify some people because there was nobody in there. I would go in there and work through it by the book.”
She would do this during the slow hours of the night shift, and got the classification job after it was posted.
Heath said working in a prison wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be.
“They’re behind bars, they’re not gonna bother you,” she said. “But then, after a while, you figure out you’re safer in here than you are on the street. You know who’s gonna bother you in here; you don’t know out there.”
Inmates will try to manipulate officers, and Heath said officers leave their personal lives at home.
“I haven’t lost my compassion, but I have learned to read people better,” she said. “The inmates – I don’t say they love me, but they respect me. You treat them like people. You’ve got some that made a bad choice and some that made a mistake. Just because they’re in jail doesn’t mean they’re a bad person.”
Heath’s son Jeff, who was 11 when she started working at the jail, is now an officer with Wackenhut Services Inc. at the Savannah River Site.
“We can’t go anywhere without somebody who knows her that has to speak to her,” he said, adding that most people call her “Bernice” or “Ms. Heath.”
“If they say, ‘Hey, Ms. Heath,’ chances are they know her because they’ve been on the other side,” he said.
Heath said she plans to spend her retirement being a grandmother to her grandchildren in South Carolina and Virginia.
Capt. Nick Gallam has known Heath since he arrived at the jail in 2001, and Heath was his training officer.
“She’s always been an encourager for me,” he said. “There were times when I didn’t think I’d be able to do certain things in this profession, and she’s always pushed me. I look up to her as a mentor and a friend – kind of like a motherly figure.” Gallam said Heath will be remembered most for the way she treated people, “not just inmates but people as a whole.”