Like a lot of Indian-American kids, Sonal Patel wanted to be a doctor. So, as an undergraduate at Michigan State University, she started taking the usual pre-medical classes. But what started as steps down the typical career path ended up taking her far from it.
As she completed psychology classes, she began to feel as if a future in medicine might not be exactly what she wanted. Patel had always liked helping people and had often found herself being a source of emotional problem-solving for her family and friends. Roopali Lalaji, a friend of almost 40 years says she is “forever grateful for her thoughtful perspective when I ask for guidance.” Patel’s older sister Alka calls her “a rock when it comes to our family.”
It was when Patel started a fellowship at a VA hospital that she realized her calling was to help the underserved — those who needed her most. Her psychology degree and experience had left her well-prepared for the journey.
Patel continued her education and earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Detroit. Before she had even graduated, she landed her first job: working as a line psychologist in a Ypsilanti women’s prison.
It seemed like an unconventional office setting to some in her community, but in spite of this, Patel says her parents were always supportive and encouraging. She recalls her father, Suresh, who passed away in 2010, telling her that no one else could choose her path for her.
“I don’t want you to look back 30 years from now and be miserable in your job because I forced you to do something that you didn’t want to,” he told her. “I might not be here then and I want to make sure you are happy.”
A pharmacist from India who immigrated to the U.S. in 1969 before his wife Manjula and their daughters arrived in 1975, Suresh had always made his children and their happiness his first priority. After coming to the U.S., Suresh worked multiple jobs while attending courses in medical technology to save money for a house and the requisite immigration fees for the family. To ease Sonal’s mother’s fears about working as a line psychologist, he came up with a clever back-up plan, suggesting Sonal move in with her older sister and family for the first year — to save money and to have the flexibility to look for another job if she did change her mind.
But Patel has never looked back. Now the State Deputy Warden at Woodland Center Correctional Facility in Whitmore Lake, she has enjoyed a decorated career with Michigan’s Department of Corrections. As the second-in-command, she helps run every aspect of the facility.
The Woodland Center Correctional Facility houses the Inpatient Mental Health and Crisis Stabilization Program (CSP), for prisoners experiencing serious mental health crises. The program’s goal is to stabilize these prisoners and provide ongoing inpatient mental health treatment.
“The thing about working in Corrections, and especially those going through a mental crisis, is you have to want it,” says Patel. “I could make more money and go into private practice, but that has never what it’s been about for me. It’s not about a paycheck. I just want to help people.”
Those who know Patel well say her drive to get things done and attention to detail have positioned her for success — at work and outside of it. “Sonal is intelligent, persistent, optimistic in the face of adversity, and an ardent advocate for her friends, clients and staff,” says Lalaji. Patel’s elder sister Alka says Sonal has always been proactive. “When our father passed away, Sonal took it upon herself to ensure that my mom’s accounts, day-to-day set up of her life, were set up so that we didn’t have to worry about what to do next. Everything was transferred over, taken care of, flawlessly.”
Patel notes that her career has come with its challenges. “The worst days are when you have a prisoner who has successfully hurt themselves or committed suicide. It’s very hard to accept that we can’t help them all.”
But it has also seen some rewarding moments: A support group that she ran early in her career at the women’s prison stands out to her. “They started very reluctantly and had little trust in the system or me, but it ended up being such a success that the prisoners themselves wrote a proposal to extend the group, even after we were done. And, the very best part — not one of them came back to prison after being paroled.”
Since then, Patel has focused her career on helping prisoners navigate their re-entry into society following their time in prison. Using her experience working in prisons, she was able to work directly with officials in Lansing to develop and administer new programs designed to reduce recidivism.
“It’s hard when they tell you they have nothing and no one to go back to,” says Patel. “Of course, the success rate is higher when they have a support system, but the challenge is to make them self-reliant enough that they don’t need one.”
Patel’s deep sense of service is immediately clear to her coworkers. “Sonal is a particularly talented professional and leader. She is diligent and committed to excellence. She provides exceptional guidance and mentoring to staff, has great attention to detail and celebrates the success of our team and staff,” says Jodi DeAngelo, Warden of the Woodland Center Correctional Facility.
“There are definitely days that I’m bogged down with meetings and the typical red tape. They are frustrating, because you want to help everyone, and you want to do it as soon as possible,” Patel says. When difficult situations arise, she likes to handle the stress by taking boxing classes at Title Boxing Club (“I walked in one day and haven’t stopped.”), visiting her mother for a home-cooked meal or reading — her go-to is Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
“But then you have the days when a prisoner randomly thanks you for changing their lives. Those days are the ones that stay with you.”