Former deputy warden brought passion, perspective to W.Va. prison.
Whyte should know. He's worked with Silvester since the early 1970s, when Silvester was supervisor of Huttonsville's diagnostic and classification unit and Whyte was fresh from graduate school. "A master's doesn't prepare you for inmate diagnostics," Whyte admits. While Silvester showed him the ropes, Whyte became more and more impressed by the strength of his mentor's convictions. "He always told you what was on his mind," Whyte says. "And he was usually right."
In those early years, the normally soft-spoken Silvester wasn't always so controlled. According to Whyte, Silvester sometimes got angry - literally hopping mad. "He learned a lot of curse words in Spanish," Whyte says, "but since we didn't have the slightest idea what he was saying, we didn't get upset. In fact, we'd start laughing, which only made him jump up and down more."
Silvester picked up his Spanish in Chile. In 1961, after serving a year as a parish priest in St. Joseph, Mo., he volunteered to be part of a mission to Chile. He traveled first to Santiago, where he ministered in the city's ghettos, then to southern Chile, home of the Mapuchi Indian tribes. In 1969, he left the ministry. The following year, he returned to West Virginia and landed a job as a classification counselor at Huttonsville, a medium security facility nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.
The move from missionary work to corrections seemed logical to Silvester. "It was like the type of work I had been trained for," he says. He quickly climbed Huttonsville's chain of command - promoted first to unit supervisor, then associate warden and, finally, deputy warden. Among his career highlights: helping to develop a formal classification system (the state's first) and a risk assessment tool to aid in selecting inmates for placement in minimum security and community facilities.
Whyte believes that Silvester's experience in Chile has been especially critical to his success. "Living in the Andes, living in other cultures, expanded his horizons more than others who haven't had that chance," Whyte says. He claims that Silvester has a different way of looking at the world.
Over the years, West Virginia DOC staff came to rely on his unique perspective. "After you used your whole bag of tricks, you'd call Joe," says William Duncil, warden at Huttonsville for the past eight years. "People were calling him all the time, saying, 'Joe, help me figure out what to do.'"
Although Silvester retired as deputy warden on Dec. 1, 1995, to devote more time to his wife and two children, he's still helping Huttonsville's staff, teaching in the facility's adult basic education program and consulting one day a week. Still, Duncil is the first to admit, "There are no more Joe Silvesters." When asked what his staff does now after they've exhausted their bag of tricks, the warden pays Silvester the ultimate compliment: "We all try to figure out what Joe would think."