A former beauty products businesswoman with a bright smile and warm, welcoming demeanor, Renee Brinkley (BGS ’03) is not the person you’d expect to find running the parish’s correction facilities.
Lafourche’s head administrator of corrections for the past three years, Brinkley oversees the parish jail in Thibodaux — an overcrowded, aging facility housing up to 245 inmates.
At its best, the jail is an unpleasant place to spend a day. At its worst, it can be downright dangerous. But where many people see a place of punishment, Brinkley sees opportunity. She views inmates as people who are facing not only the biggest challenges of their lives but who are also being presented with a chance to change their path.
“Whether great or small, we have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life every day,” Brinkley says.
The first woman promoted to major in the Lafourche Parish Sheriff ’s Office, Brinkley has worked in law enforcement for 14 years, but her path wasn’t always a clear one. She initially struggled with devoting herself to her studies and deciding on a major, and she left Nicholls before finishing her degree. Brinkley later returned and earned her general studies degree after University College Dean Al Davis convinced her that having diverse interests wasn’t a bad thing.
“He really put it together for me when he said, ‘Renee, it’s okay that you want to be Miss America and the president and a veterinarian and a counselor,’” Brinkley recalls. “For the first time I really felt like I was okay being a person who was interested in so many different things.”
A Thibodaux resident for much of her life, Brinkley began her career a long way from the jailhouse — selling bath and beauty products and guiding businesses for Neill Corporation.
When the company was bought out, Brinkley found herself at a crossroads. She ran into Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre at a football game, and he convinced her to work for him as executive director of Weed and Seed, a federally sponsored program that aims to prevent and reduce crime in targeted neighborhoods.
“Working in my community and working with people was always my passion, so, for me, it was the perfect job,” she says.
After watching Brinkley navigate tough neighborhoods, her coworkers suggested she undergo formal police officer training. Having never touched a gun before, Brinkley recalls her training as “shocking” and “life-changing.” Leaning on what she learned at the academy, at Nicholls and in her graduate program at the University of New Orleans, she steadily rose through the ranks, serving as captain of the personnel division, major of the civil department and finally head administrator of corrections.
Running Lafourche Parish’s corrections system takes a firm attitude and the ability to tell people the truth, even when they don’t want to hear it. But the job also takes empathy, something Brinkley has a lot of.
“I have a huge heart, and sometimes I think that’s my downfall,” she says. “I go home and I worry about the people I’ve met, and I pray for people.”
That’s especially tough in the corrections system, where the goal is to reform inmates in hopes that they’ll change their lives and never return. In reality, many end up back behind bars.
“When I see the revolving door, I can’t help but question myself and say, where did we fail? I always want to know if I could have done something more,” she says.
Not everyone’s going to jail forever, she adds. Ultimately, many inmates are coming back into the community. They could be your neighbor, your mother’s neighbor, a co-worker or someone who does your home repairs.
“Wouldn’t you want to know we did something to make them better?” she says.
While Brinkley has never felt unaccepted by her mostly male peers in law enforcement, it took time for her to learn that she didn’t have to change her personality or harden herself. She’s kept her big heart intact, even if it means crying at drug court graduation, which celebrates drug offenders who reach sobriety.
“I was so proud of the graduates,” she says. “For some of them it took years, but they finally beat their addiction and that’s something to celebrate. So yeah I get excited and I cry — I learned a long time ago that it’s okay for me to just be who I am.”
— Written by Nikki Buskey, marketing/communications specialist
This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.