“So you counsel inmates?” his father asked, confused by the fancy title.

Yetter, looking back on that conversation in 1980, laughed at his attempts to explain his new job. “After about five minutes I finally said to him, ‘Dad, I’m a guard,’ ” he said recently as he retired as Washington County’s jail commander.

Always a “keeper of men,” as corrections officers are known, Yetter spent years mingling with many of Minnesota’s most dangerous and disturbed prison inmates. His experience in three state prisons eventually led him to the jail, where he put to use a simple philosophy he followed in those years of close contact with prisoners:

“I don’t care what he’s in there for, you treat him or her the way you want to be treated.”

This spring, Yetter received Washington County’s top award for excellence, recognizing his work “to professionalize corrections as a career and not just a job.” County managers commended him for his diligence in improving jail health and psychiatric services, ensuring safety and security of staff and inmates, and mentoring employees, including the new commander who replaced him last week, Roger Heinen.

Yetter’s advice for Sheriff Bill Hutton?

“Let Commander Heinen run the place, because I believe he’s been groomed for 20 years to do it.”

To that, Heinen said: “He was a great mentor to a lot of people. They really leaned on Chuck.”

What makes good officers

Yetter, now 56, came to the Sheriff’s Office in 1995 after working his way through the ranks at St. Cloud, Oak Park Heights and Stillwater prisons, where he became intimately familiar with what made a good corrections officer.

“You’ve got to be ethically and morally sound because a lot of time you are challenged with the inmates, whether it’s bribed, a lot of times pushed to the limit, [asked] why can’t you do this?” he said. “You’ve got to have a good, sound base. That can start with how you were brought up, who you are as an individual, whatever. A bad one is maybe going with the gut when he shouldn’t, letting his outside world dictate his inside work world, meaning a bad day at home, money situation.”

The county award that Yetter received in April observed that the jail under his leadership received 100 percent state inspection scores every year except for two, when they still exceeded 96 percent.

Yetter attributes that to his background in corrections — and to his staff.

When Hutton was elected sheriff in 2006, Yetter was chief deputy, second in command to former Sheriff Steve Pott. As new sheriffs tend to do, Hutton rearranged leadership roles, moving Yetter to the jail.

Hutton, who had been an Oakdale police captain, sometimes made hourly visits to the jail to learn about its operation.

“I could have got a cold shoulder, he could have made it difficult for me, but he didn’t,” Hutton said of Yetter. “For the first few months I spent the start of my days with Chuck. I know others who, when they took over as sheriff, didn’t have the luxury of a Chuck Yetter.”

Yetter repaid the compliment: “I’ve enjoyed working for Sheriff Hutton. He took it upon himself to learn the jail, which cops don’t like to do, but the jail here is such a huge part of the budget. It’s the largest division, the largest responsibility and liability that the sheriff has, it’s an act of faith. He learned it, got to know it, and we’ve got a great working relationship ever since.

“He has really taken hold of not locking them up and throwing away the key like cops like to do, but more reshaping these individuals while they’re here to make them better when they return to the streets,” Yetter said of Hutton. “That’s huge for a cop. That’s what has to continue for us to be successful here.”

Prisons vs. jails

Yetter has seen significant changes in corrections. Electronic doors, security cameras and other features made prisons and jails safer. Chemical irritants, more than brute force, now keep unruly inmates in line. More prisoners have mental illnesses, requiring more training.

Yetter was a lieutenant at Oak Park Heights prison when he was loaned to Stillwater prison to help start “controlled movement” procedures that rotated inmates in and out of confinement. “It was a run-and-gun show,” he said of the practice of allowing large numbers of inmates to move around the prison at the same time. A “very chilly” reception from officers in that prison was discouraging at first, but “we made believers out of them and I think that’s what really established control of that prison,” Yetter said.

Prisons and jails share many similarities, he said, because both house people who have committed serious crimes. Jails, for example, can house prison inmates waiting for court appearances.

One significant difference is that “three-quarters of the jail population that we have here are going to be your friend, your dad, your mom, your sister, your cousin, an administrative head, a 3M person, these are the individuals who come through the door because they made one bad decision.”

Most of them will spend a few days in jail and never return.

“He was always known to say, ‘These are members of someone’s family, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Heinen said.

Yetter said corrections is much more than keeping prisoners in custody.

“It’s a booming business because prisons aren’t going away, jails aren’t going away,” he said. “You’ve got to believe that some good is going to help these people.”