Meet Jerry O'Gara: Former NYC prison warden wants to be next Flagler sheriff
Jerry O’Gara, a resident of the W-section, stands 5-foot-8 and wears a crew cut that used to be, in his words, “flaming red.” He comes from an Irish family from New York City, rose through the ranks in 20 years at Rikers Island to become a prison warden, and then retired to Palm Coast in his late 40s. He immediately thought of running for Flagler County sheriff, but decided he wasn’t ready for it in 2008 or 2012. Now, though, at 54, he says he is ready to bring back integrity to the department and is running as a Republican for Flagler County sheriff in 2016.
I arrived at his home for an interview on Aug. 27. Wearing slacks and a white polo shirt with the words “Elect Jerry O’Gara Sheriff,” he met me in the driveway to introduce me to his “needy dog,” a Rottweiler-Doberman-hound mix named Claudio, who licked my hand; and then Claudio was sent to the large screened-in pool in the backyard while O’Gara and I met at his dining room table. O’Gara, who was otherwise soft spoken, issued stern commands, and the dog obeyed, with plenty of affection later on. “He’s not used to having to act like a dog,” O’Gara said with a laugh.
O’Gara moved here to be closer to his parents, who have lived in Palm Coast since the late 1980s, having bought a lot in 1973 from ITT. His father has stood in front of the Government Services Building a few Thursdays when I have gone there for meetings, and he has been helping O’Gara gather the required number of signatures to help him run.
O’Gara’s mother was one of 16 kids; his father was one of 10. He grew up in Levittown, a community of blue-collar workers. “We always had enough food, drove second-hand cars,” O’Gara recalled. He wanted to be a baseball and a football star when he was growing up, then picked up guitar as a hobby. He had long hair, down past his shoulders, and he wore 4-inch platform shoes in high school. “Those were the styles in those days,” he said.
O’Gara didn’t go to college but instead worked midnights at supermarkets before, in March 1983, he joined the corrections world, working as an officer.
I asked him what it was like in corrections, and he said, in what sounded like a rehearsed answer: “It paid the bills. I’d rather be fishing.”
He said, presumably referring to questions he has heard in the early stages of the campaign, “People tell me, ‘You know, you were never a cop.’ I know I wasn’t a cop. I don’t want to be a cop. I want to manage the cops.”
As a warden, he said, his command was 3,000 inmates and 1,500 uniformed staff. By comparison, the Flagler County Inmate Facility houses about 138 and the Sheriff’s Office has about 250 staff.
I could do this job standing on my head, in terms of managing crises. The number of crises they have in a week, I’d go through before lunch on Monday.
“I could do this job standing on my head, in terms of managing crises,” he said. “The number of crises they have in a week, I’d go through before lunch on Monday.”
At the jail, he said, “You learn control. You learn not to fly off the handle.”
On his first day on the job, as a 22-year-old officer at Rikers Island, the famous New York City prison, he had to count the inmates every 45 minutes in the rows of cells on multiple decks, and give them a chance to leave the cell if they wished. The inmates called him Richie Cunningham and Howdy Doody, making fun of his red hair. To get back at them, he left them in the cells for an extra 15 minutes on his next round, and they threw apples at him, milk containers, bags of water (“I hope it was water,” he said).
“It shook me up,” he said. But he came back the next day, and that showed the inmates he wouldn’t give up, he concluded.
Still, the inmates would do whatever they could to disrupt the officers’ duties, even physically try to stop them from closing the gates on the cells. They would put toothpaste caps in the chains to jam them up and try to get the officers in trouble. When the officer would try to remove it, “they would stop you," he said. "They would physically try to stop you. … They knew nothing was going to happen. We didn’t even write reports of assaults on staff.”
As a result, the environment was often violent. In his first two years, he said, “I had 64 fights as an officer. I lost 11 of them. It was just, you had to stand up for your post. If you didn’t, you lost the post. You lost the inmates. It just wasn’t done. People didn’t write inmates up. You fought the inmates, and you took control of your housing area. … Nobody knew about it, not the outside world, not your wife.”
That changed within a couple of years, he said, as inmates who committed crimes started to be put into punitive segregation areas, individual holding cells (although, they were still allowed to access other areas of the facilities at certain times, he said). The rules were later changed further, and inmates could be charged with further crimes while incarcerated.
To advance in his career, O’Gara took tests. He studied by recording himself on a cassette tape reading the manuals and regulations that he was supposed to memorize, and listening to that tape over and over again. He made flashcards. And he aced the test, scoring among the highest out of thousands of others who took the test, he said.
In his career at Rikers Island, he continued to advance to the point that he was made assistant deputy warden and then was assigned to the commissioner’s office as an assistant. He managed more and more officers, and more and more inmates, until he finally received a political appointment by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, becoming one of the 10 wardens on Rikers Island.
O’Gara recalled the office politics that accompanied the appointment, with the next appointee always waiting for his turn, and loyalties being influenced by the promotions.
And so, after about three years as a warden, he retired from Rikers Island in 2003. He and his wife, Mary, who was born in Dublin, agreed that they wanted to retire when they were young enough to enjoy life.
In the first two or three years of his retirement, O’Gara and his wife stayed in New York, and he returned to his hobby of playing guitar and bass. He had kept it up through the years, he said. “It was a stress reduction,” he said. “After work, I’d go up and play. On good days, I’d play Clapton songs. On bad days, I’d play Metallica songs.”
In the newspaper, he answered a call for a guitarist to join a band, and it turned out to be a great opportunity — except for the pay. The Rob Dover Band opened for Kelly Clarkson and Collective Soul, and opened for Bon Jovi in Puerto Rico. He learned the songs and sang backup, and enjoyed the touring experience, although he was only paid for hotels and transportation, not for playing the music. “But I was collecting a pension,” he said. “I didn’t need it.”
He and wife moved to Palm Coast to retire in January 2008. He has been heavily involved in the Elks ever since and has been learning about the Sheriff’s Office and planning for an eventual run. And this is the year he’s going to do it, he said.
He filed his papers months ago to run for sheriff, the first to do so, and well over a year before the primary. O’Gara said in a previous interview, “Me getting in so early have made a lot of people … get in much sooner than they normally would.” Speaking of the other candidates, he said, “They have to be concerned.”