The bachelor's degree in sociology that Sgt. Shana Hamilton holds has gone to good use at Aiken County Detention Center, where she has worked as a detention officer for four years.
After all, she says, the 300-inmate jail is, in itself, a small society, with behaviors that can be observed and learned from.
"That's what they taught us in college: to observe people and observe their ways," Sgt. Hamilton says. "Most of the people here don't want to cause trouble - they just want to get out of jail or have somebody hear their story. You've got to do a lot of listening."
Sgt. Hamilton, a 28-year-old single mother of a 3-year-old son, was promoted to sergeant over 15 other candidates in May.
A native of Charleston and a 1997 graduate of the University of South Carolina Aiken, she worked at Helping Hands, a shelter for abused and neglected children, before taking the job at the detention center.
Twelve hours a day, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., she roams the "pods" - large rooms encircled by upper-level bunks - seeing to the needs of male and female inmates, from toiletries to paperwork requests, and supervising the jail staff. She balances empathy and authority in her approach to inmates, and she is careful not to condescend or judge.
"You can't have the attitude that you're better than anyone," Sgt. Hamilton says. "It will show, and they will know. Everything goes a lot smoother when you know how to talk to people. You can know all the security procedures in the world, but if you don't know how to talk to people, it won't work. I can't judge them - that's God's role."
Sgt. Hamilton has watched people go through changes behind bars - losing family members, seeing spouses or children abandon them. Having lived what she calls a "sheltered" life as a globe-trotting Army brat, she was shocked at first by the sight of men and women going through the agony of drug and alcohol withdrawals.
"You see a lot in here," she says.
Balancing the roles of single mother and supervising officer can be tough, Sgt. Hamilton says. She prefers to keep her "home at home" and "work at work."
Each day, she says a prayer before reporting for duty.
"It helps guide my words and actions," she says.
While she agrees that working in a jail isn't for everybody, and she wasn't too sure early on that it was for her, Sgt. Hamilton says: "I love it. It keeps me busy. There's hardly ever a dull moment."
FAMILY: Son, Bryson, 3
BACKGROUND: The oldest daughter of a career Army man, she was raised "around the world," including three stays in Germany. Most of her immediate family lives in Charleston, S.C., and Fayetteville, N.C. She earned a bachelor's degree in sociology at University of South Carolina Aiken in 1997.
QUOTE: "I leave my work at work and my home at home because you cannot bring your problems to work."
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395.