David Crist celebrated his ninth birthday in a Wisconsin prison dining room with a surprise cake that inmates had baked.

Years later, as a correctional officer at Oak Park Heights prison, Crist was reminded again of the unpredictable nature of men who have committed serious crimes. He was trying to hold back inmates from joining a disturbance when a sudden flurry of punches left him bleeding.

"I went back in the living unit with my shirt covered with blood and served every inmate an evening supper, just to make the point that I wasn't going away," said Crist, who retired Tuesday after working 33 years for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, most recently as deputy commissioner for Facility Services.

"A lifer almost 25, 30 years later said to me one time that he had a lot of respect for me because I took that beating like a man. ... It probably wasn't the smartest thing I ever did and I wouldn't ever allow a staff member to do that today," said Crist, now 56.

Over time, Crist served as warden at both Stillwater and Lino Lakes prisons and later became a deputy commissioner in the state office, overseeing the operations of Minnesota's nine prisons.

Since those early days when his father, Roger, was in charge of security at Wisconsin State Prison at Waupun, Crist has never strayed from the grittiness of working among inmates.

"I was probably a better prison warden than an assistant commissioner or deputy commissioner," he said one recent afternoon while walking among inmates inside Stillwater prison. "I just think I'm better suited for this work. It's dynamic, it's exciting. Sometimes it's very sad."

Crist's appreciation of the men and women who work in close quarters with inmates who often outnumber them 75 to one hasn't gone unnoticed at the labor union representing most of Minnesota's corrections officers.

"Dave really understands what we do on a daily basis," said Sgt. John Hillyard, president of Local 600 of AFSCME and an employee at Stillwater prison. "Once he meets you and works with you, Dave remembers your name and what you have done and always calls you by name when he speaks to you. For somebody who works especially in management in corrections, that's an important tool to have."

Corrections official Dennis Benson said Crist earned a national reputation for his work in technology and training to improve perimeter security to prevent escapes. "He was a real pioneer in that area and he drilled it down to understandable terms," said Benson, now head of Minnesota's sex offender treatment program.

"He's certainly respected by offenders and staff alike," Benson said. "David is one of those people who give corrections a good name."

Places of danger

On a recent afternoon at Stillwater prison, dozens of officers in crisp white shirts filed out of a briefing room and through two barred doors to be among inmates as they eat, sleep, exercise and study. The afternoon shift change has been much the same since 1914, when the state opened the maximum security prison.

Inside the "infamous" B West cellhouse, where Crist spent his first day in 1979 stationed by the door in the Stillwater prison, he told of being posted at a locked entrance as 30 men yelled and swore at him to let them go to the gym.

"I knew enough about the schedule that I wasn't going to let them go because they said it was time," Crist said.

In those days, before a concrete wall was built to divide the cellhouse in half, six officers stood watch over 475 inmates. Another improvement -- a trick Crist learned from his dad -- was painting the edges of cell doors red so officers know at a glance when one is unlocked.

"Just that little thing made it so much safer for staff," he said. "They didn't have to guess whether the door was going to fly open and somebody was going to grab out at them."

These days, B West is full of "idle" inmates either waiting for prison jobs or not wanting to work.

"This is going to start getting rowdy after a little while," Crist said last month, as more men emerged from their cells and shouted questions at him from the galleys.

He's been in the midst of many tense situations when, years ago, all of the prison's 1,300 inmates regularly were allowed out of their cells for recreation and sometimes congregated in the exercise yard with only three officers supervising.

That led to Crist's involvement in a new policy known as "controlled movement" that released men in shifts. Assaults on inmates fell 40 percent overnight, he said.

Crist's father, who left Wisconsin in 1971 to become warden of Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, became a big name in national corrections when he was hired to clean up New Mexico's prisons after 33 inmates died in a riot in 1980. He finished his career as a prison warden in Arizona.

The younger Crist recalled his high school days in Montana, when his family lived in a state house across the street from the prison. Every Thursday, an inmate who worked at the house baked five-dozen chocolate chip cookies for him and his four brothers. "The same guy taught me to pick locks when I was 17 years old," Crist said.

Prisons of the future will have even more cameras and other technology and more advanced architecture to keep inmates and staff safer, he said. But the role of corrections officers will remain much the same -- maintaining order by being friendly with inmates without being friends.

"They know we have the option of force," Crist said. "They know we have bullets and handcuffs and tear gas. We don't need to be reminding them of that day in and day out. That just breeds contempt.

"The quality of relationships we have with these offenders is what makes staff safe in these facilities."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037, Twitter: @stribgiles

Andrew Johnson is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.