Juanita Baker, a trailblazer for women and African-Americans in the N.C. Department of Corrections and the widow of former Wake County Sheriff John Baker, died Tuesday evening. She was 78.
Baker served in positions at the Department of Correction most of her career, starting as a teacher for inmates and ending as the chairwoman of the statewide Parole Commission.
Jonnita Baker Williams said her mom was a people person to whom others looked for advice.
“She never met a stranger,” Baker Williams said.
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Baker grew up in Raleigh and graduated with a degree in business education from Shaw University. She married her husband, John Baker Jr., in 1959 – he was a professional football player, and in 1978 became Wake County’s first African-American sheriff since Reconstruction. He passed away in 2007. They had been married 48 years.
Baker became a teacher for inmates at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women in 1961 and worked her way up to become superintendent of the prison in 1970.
At the time, Baker was one of only a few blacks in such a high position at the Department of Correction and was the only woman superintendent. She held that post until she was fired in 1974, ostensibly for not making enough progress implementing new programs for inmates. Just a year before, when administrative tensions were already high, 107 of the prison’s 340 inmates signed a letter in support of Baker.
Many claimed the firing was either politically or racially motivated, but Baker decided not to appeal.
After a short stint with the Department of Agriculture, she found her way back to the Department of Correction, becoming personnel director in 1980 and eventually being appointed chairwoman of the state’s Parole Commission by Gov. Jim Hunt in 1993.
“I’ve always seen Juanita as not afraid of being a woman in a males’ world,” said Jennie Lancaster, who retired as chief deputy secretary of the department in January and worked with Baker for years.
“She and John, her husband, really complemented each other as real professionals, maintaining that professional demeanor but not afraid to advocate for the things that she believed in,” Lancaster said.
Sorting out the inmates
She said that Baker never forgot her roots in teaching inmates and focused on programs to help inmates reintegrate into the community.
“She was not a softie,” Lancaster said. “But she also understood what human beings inmates are. They’re not evil people.”
Franklin Freeman, who was secretary of the Department of Correction in the 1990s, said Baker helped lead the state and Parole Commission through a difficult period of prison overcrowding, when inmates could often serve only a fraction of their sentences.
“There was a heavy burden on them to be sure that the people they released were the least dangerous, but they had to do it,” Freeman said.
Baker Williams recalled how her mother would bring cases home and study them to make sure she did the right thing.
“Every decision she made she was comfortable with,” Baker Williams said.
Baker was devoted to her family, especially her many grandchildren, said her pastor, the Rev. Marion Robinson of St. Matthew Church in Raleigh.
“She was made of values, and she was a lady of courage,” Robinson said. “She didn’t mind stepping up and doing the right thing.”
Service arrangements are still being organized and will be held at Haywood Funeral Home in Raleigh. Baker is also survived by her son, John Baker III.