It was a few years after high school graduation, and Joseph Ponte was working in the same Massachusetts factory as his machinist father, producing artillery shell casings.

It was loud and monotonous work. So Ponte listened when a high school buddy suggested he become a prison guard. It was easy work, with good benefits, his friend said.

So Ponte, a native of Acushnet, Mass., entered the corrections field — and never left.

He developed a reputation as a methodical and diligent manager who relishes a challenge. He became known professionally as someone who took over some of the most violent, out-of-control jails and prisons in the country, and helped transform them into safe, well-run facilities.

Ponte, 64, Maine’s new commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said a lot has changed since 1969, when he entered the field. Back then, he said, prisons served as human warehouses.

“Our job was to make sure nobody escaped and nobody was hurt,” Ponte said. “It used to be in corrections we tried not to do any harm, to take an offender in and make sure they were not worse when put back on the street.”

Now, the mission of corrections is to rehabilitate criminals while keeping them safely removed from society.

“You can change people,” he said.

Ponte says that despite his reputation as a turnaround specialist, he was not given the Maine job because of any particular problem.

The prisons have a low frequency of assaults and suicides. There haven’t been many riots or disturbances through the years, he said.

Rather, family reasons brought him to Maine.

“We spent a lot of time over the last 10 years living in other states and other parts of the country,” Ponte said. “It just wasn’t home and I just wanted to get back here.”

‘IT WAS A MESS’

By 1980, Ponte had made a name for himself as someone who could manage staff as well as inmates.

He had never run a prison, even as an assistant warden. But when Massachusetts’ then-Gov. Edward King pledged to clean up the notorious Walpole state prison, Ponte got the job.

The day before he took over, an inmate was murdered. The following month, the prison had another inmate murder.

“They had riots. A number of staff were seriously injured. It was a mess,” Ponte recalled.

Working with recommendations from the National Institute of Corrections, Ponte instituted what at the time were considered innovative strategies for inmate management.

Prisoners were given personality assessments to determine which ones were the more violent and problematic. Inmates were put in smaller groups with closer supervision, a practice called “unit management.” Violent and predatory inmates were housed together so they could not easily intimidate other inmates.

Jeffrey Schwartz, a California-based prison consultant who met Ponte several years later, said that when Ponte took over in Walpole, there were proposals to tear down the building and start over.

“Joe had straightened that out rather quickly and turned it into a quite well-run maximum-security prison,” Schwartz said. “People came in to see how he had done that.”

That work and subsequent assignments in Massachusetts and in the Rhode Island corrections system attracted the attention of a startup private prison company, Cornell Corrections Corp., which hired Ponte in 1992. He eventually became its head of East Coast operations.

“We wanted to make our first project our showplace,” said Norman Cox, who worked at Cornell Corrections and now handles re-entry programs for Prison Fellowship, a faith-based prisoner improvement program in Virginia.

Ponte was meticulous about documentation, including during a crisis, and adept at developing staff loyalty, Cox said.

“He’s the kind of person who is very firm, so you know exactly where you stand with him, but he’s always fair,” Cox said. “If he says there’s zero tolerance of prisoner abuse, that means zero.”

When Union County, N.J., needed a jail administrator to tackle a contentious labor environment, Ponte took a pay cut to make the move in 1996.

The union president had been indicted on witness-tampering charges and there was a widespread sense that the union ran the facility, he said. Ponte said that rather than challenge the union’s authority, he sought common ground.

“They wanted to participate in the development of policy and have a say in what we did,” Ponte said. “We all want good, safe institutions.”

They negotiated two contracts without a walkout, which had been a common feature of previous talks, he said.

In 2001, Ponte accepted a job at Shelby County Jail in Memphis, Tenn.

Designed for 1,100 inmates, the jail housed 3,000 — 30 percent more than the entire prison population of the state of Maine.

The jail was run by gangs, said Robert Hutton, a lawyer who sued the county over rampant civil rights violations. Prisoners had regular competitions in an activity they called “Thunderdome,” where unwilling inmates were forced to fight and other prisoners placed bets on the outcome.

Hutton’s federal lawsuit, initiated after the gang rape of a man who had been arrested for a weekend traffic violation, led to a court order to clean up the jail.

A new sheriff who had campaigned on improving the jail brought in Ponte.

“He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy,” Hutton said. “My recollection is he liked a real challenge.”

Ponte set out to restore the staff’s sense of pride and accountability, and establish closer supervision of inmates.

“If there was one issue there, it was poor leadership,” Ponte said. “Everyone was out of hope. No one thought we could fix it.

“With a lack of leadership, inmates fill that void,” he said.

James Coleman worked with Ponte in Union County, N.J., and also in Memphis, as his deputy jail administrator.

“He’s a person that understands human behavior,” Coleman said. “He understand that people are people, regardless of whether they’re locked up or free.”

After three years in Memphis, Ponte returned to Massachusetts so he could be closer to his two grown children and his octogenarian parents. His father had developed lung cancer.

Ponte finished his bachelor’s degree, majoring in political science, and worked as a consultant, but eventually grew bored. In 2006, he was set to take a job running a prison in Omaha, Neb., when the Corrections Corporation of America asked him to run a private prison in Florida. He put the choice to his wife, Maria, who opted for Florida.

That job eventually took them to Nevada, where he ran the Nevada Southern Detention Center, a new 1,072-bed facility in Pahrump, Nev.

His wife returned to Massachusetts to be closer to their children and grandchild. She earned her master’s degree in education and is now a sixth-grade science teacher outside Boston. So Ponte began looking for a new job closer to home.

The couple enjoys kayaking and cycling and last year hiked the Grand Canyon.

For now, Maria Ponte will continue teaching in Massachusetts and he has a temporary home in Belgrade. It’s a lot closer than Nevada, he points out.

Ponte said his wife asked him what Belgrade is like and he responded that he doesn’t know: It’s dark when he goes to work and dark when he comes home.

Schwartz, the California prison consultant, said he’s not surprised Ponte is spending a lot of time in the office.

Ponte is not particularly charismatic and is a bit of an introvert, but that belies a very knowledgeable man, Schwartz said. His ethical standards are the highest, he said.

“Joe would absolutely write up his mother if she did something wrong,” Schwartz said.

Ponte said treating staff with respect is the key to good management. In previous facilities, he has insisted that managers outside the prisons spend time each week inside, getting to know officers and the operation.

Bruce Hodsdon, president of the Maine State Employees Association, said employees like the chance to be heard.

“Our impression of a good commissioner is someone who respects his employees, who will sit and listen not only with the managers but the front line people,” Hodsdon said. “We understand times are tough, but if we can sit down and talk with the commissioner, it really makes everything a lot better.”

The union did not take a position on Ponte’s appointment, but Hodsdon said the union is concerned about Ponte’s background in private corrections.

“We are always sensitive and aware of those issues of contracting out our jobs,” he said.

The other union that represents prison workers, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, opposed Ponte’s nomination, fearing it could indicate the privatization of prisons in Maine.

A spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage has said Ponte’s private sector experience could lead to efficiencies and innovation, but does not reflect a plan to privatize the state prisons.

Ponte said overseeing a corrections budget at a time of severe fiscal austerity could pose its own challenge.

“I’ve been doing this 41 years,” he said. “It really is a rewarding, challenging job you need to really work at to be successful.”

Then, as if referring to the sales pitch from his now-retired friend who got him into the business in 1969: “It’s not easy, for sure.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]