It’s been a journey for the Southside Regional Jail’s third-in-command, but it’s a journey she’s glad she took.
Emporia native Aretha Pegram, who graduated from Greensville County High School in 1988, didn’t see herself going into corrections right away, but she also knew her job out of high school working at the J.P. Stevens Mill in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., was not what she wanted to do with her life either.
“I soon figured out I didn’t want just a job, I wanted a career, something that was truly a career and something I could see retirement and great benefits before 65 or 70.”
Pegram said a lot of her friends were doing work in jails and prisons, so she decided to take on the challenge training, deciding corrections was something she might like to try.
Instead of trying, she excelled, graduating first in her class from the Academy on June 23, 1995.
“I was geared up, fired up and ready to go,” Pegram said of getting out of the Academy. “I knew if I just got into the job and did what I was supposed to do I could retire in 25 years. I could accomplish everything I could try in those 25 years, but knowing I would be able to retire after 25 years was powerful motivation.”
Pegram was hired by the Greensville Correctional Institution, where she remained until 1997, when she took a job with the Riverside Regional Jail in Hopewell.
“I wanted to get into the jail side of it,” Pegram said of her move from prison work to jail work. “Sometimes jails are smaller and in prison everyone is convicted and there’s a daily normal. In a jail, there’s something new every day, there’s a change of pace. I really like working in the jail system.”
Wanting to work closer to home, she took a position with the Southside Regional Jail in 1998, before the facility was even open, which meant she had to go from the large Riverside Regional to the Greensville County Jail for a period waiting for Southside Regional Jail to become operational. She was also hired at the rank of Lieutenant, having made it to Sergeant in her time at Riverside.
Pegram admitted it was a culture shock going from Riverside to the County Jail, but when Southside opened, she felt a little more at home, though there was a lot of work to do to get the facility open and up to speed. Pegram continued to excel at the jail, getting promoted to Captain five years after being hired, then getting promoted to Major in 2008. While rank was always on her mind, Pegram said she’s never pushed to get a job she wasn’t ready to hold.
“I’ve never been one to rush,” Pegram said. “I’m fine taking promotions when I’m ready for them.”
During her rise through the ranks at Southside Regional, Pegram educated herself as well, getting an Associates Degree in Criminal Justice from Southside Virginia Community College and a Bachelors Degree in Behavioral Science from Bluefield College in 2008. Pegram said she has enjoyed every job that comes with each promotion, and as Chief of Operations for the jail, Pegram said she still gets to get back into the back of the facility and interact with officers and inmates, something she said has never left her. In her role, Pegram said she sees herself as a mentor to all the jail staff, not just other females, and hopes she can inspire everyone working at Southside Regional Jail to do the best they can do every day.
“The sky’s the limit if you apply yourself,” Pegram said she tells those working in her profession. “I love the officers here, I tell them the sky’s the limit for all of us.”
Pegram also said she sees part of her job as taking the myths out of what people believe they know about corrections.
“It’s not just a lock ‘em up and throw away the key kind of situation,” Pegram said. “We have programs, work release. When people come here, we don’t just put them in a cell and that’s the end of it. There are a lot of opportunities for inmates to educate themselves and prepare to get back out there if they choose to do so.”