Though Hall County Sheriff’s Capt. Danny Woods was in on the ground floor of planning for the new $54 million Hall County jail, he didn’t expect to be its first commander.
But when former Hall County Sheriff’s Capt. Avery Niles accepted a new job as warden of the Hall County Correctional Institute in October, Woods was handed the task of heading up the new facility less than a month before it opened.
"It’s not a problem," said Woods, who previously served as first lieutenant and assistant commander under Niles and Sheriff’s Services Cmdr. Maj. Jim Ash. "Between Maj. Ash and Capt. Niles, they had been preparing me for the position for the last four years. They’re good teachers, and I’ve learned a lot."
Woods, with close to 19 years with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, started his law enforcement career as a jailer, as many do. Now he is the top jailer for a facility that, with 1,026 beds and 250 employees, ranks among the biggest county jails in the state.
"The numbers go up, and obviously the money goes up, but if you do it right, you won’t feel a difference between 400 inmates and 1,000," Woods said. "Because you need to do those same things for the 400 that you do for the 1,000."
Woods was handed to the keys to a jail that is technologically and strategically superior to the old downtown detention center.
"This new facility, as compared to the old jail, is apples and oranges," Woods said. "The layout is much more streamlined. It’s designed in a way to make it a more efficient operation."
Because of its design, the new jail allows inmates more opportunities to have outdoor recreation, or "yard call," while at the same time providing a more secure environment, Woods said. And security, along with the morale of both employees and prisoners, are the chief concerns, he said.
"You always focus on security," Woods said. "You always want to provide your officers with a safe working environment and ensure all your inmates are treated fairly."
"Employee morale and the moral of the inmates is dictated by the functions of the jail," he said. "You keep it professional, you make sure your officers are professional, and inmates respond to that professionalism."
Woods believes that the corrections field has become more professional in the years since he started, when it was regarded mainly as a stepping stone to other jobs in law enforcement.
"I honestly believe it has progressed to where it’s become a good career path," Woods said. "There’s a lot of people not interested in the patrol side of law enforcement who fit right in here. There’s a lot of opportunities for growth and advancement."
Woods said he considers Ash, who is over the jail and court services divisions of the sheriff’s office, as a mentor.
"I would stack him up against anyone I’ve met as far as jail knowledge and the ability to operate a jail," Woods said.
Ash said Woods has a good mind for the job, from how jail operations interact with the other sheriff’s divisions to how to navigate the budget process in the government arena.
And perhaps most importantly, Ash said, "He knows how to manage people. He knows how to talk to people. When the change (in jail commanders) happened, Sheriff (Steve) Cronic made the right decision, and made it without hesitation."
"He’s a good man, and he’s going to carry this jail well."