The corrections profession is like none other. Over 400,000 brave men and women work eight to twelve-hour shifts to maintain order within the walls that house the most violent and unhinged individuals that the judicial system has locked up. Entering the corrections profession will present multiple different barriers regardless of your gender. However, there are higher hurdles for women to jump as they enter the male-dominated field due to discriminatory stereotypes. This blog will discuss the obstacles that female correctional officers face and how they can be overcome. 

History 

Women who worked in the corrections industry throughout time were historically known to be the “behind the scenes” employees limited to answering phones, filing, and typing. Even then, these women who weren’t working in housing units as their male counterparts, voiced they believed they had to prove themselves by working twice as hard (Chaddock, 2015). It wasn’t until 1973 when the first women correctional officers were hired at California Institution for Men. What followed was a massive amount of vocal opposition from male inmates, facility staff, management personnel, and lawmakers. The complaints ranged from a wide scale: women being “too weak” to physically protect themselves or their fellow officers in confrontations with inmates, women presence reminding inmates of their sexual deprivation, and the overall distraction from both male inmates and officers, further threatening the safety of facility operations (Chaddock, 2018). 

Quotes from the first women correctional officers were hired at Folsom State Prison, CA, in 1977:

Female officers should get good counseling. You should really think about whether you have the ability to do it. Women have to prove themselves more to their supervisors, their fellow officers, and the inmates. It isn’t fair but it’s fact
Janet Matsuda
former Folsom State Prison correctional officer
A woman should consider whether she can do more good than harm in this work. The convict will try their best, as they do with every officer, to make you uncomfortable. They have a new trick every day.
Maria Tingey
former Folsom State Prison correctional officer
I don’t like being restricted in my job because I’m a woman. The point is that if a task is being done in a professional manner, what does it matter if the person doing it is male or female?
Joyce Zink
former Folsom State Prison correctional officer

Although times have changed since the 1970’s and major improvements have been made to the corrections industry, there are still stereotypes present today. Hollywood movies and TV shows depict female officers to be a sexual fling or easily manipulated target, giving the real-life female corrections officers a questionable reputation. But in real life, female employees comprise roughly 29 percent of the corrections workforce, meaning they have 71 percent of males counterparts who can either be a part of the problem, or support them. (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2021). It’s a heavy stereotype to carry on your shoulders and gets heavier without the proper information to succeed as a woman in this male-dominated industry.

How Do You Define “Strong”?

If you discriminate against women due to their physical size or capability (or lack thereof) controlling emotions, you’re part of the problem. Let’s discuss physical appearance - it’s true that there is a body-type difference between males and females. The average height for a woman is 63” versus men at 69” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021).  When you have to use any hands-on tactic with an inmate, that height and weight difference can make or break a life-or-death scenario. However, all correctional officers know that using a hands-on procedure is the last resort. Before a situation escalates to using physical force, the first step all officers should use is communication. Most women were likely taught to not voice your opinion too loudly. However, this is a profession where voices are required in order to protect everybody. Verbal communication is the most powerful tool in the arsenal. And last time we checked; verbal communication is a skill set that most people can use regardless of gender (and some would even argue that women verbally communicate better than men).

It’s universal knowledge that it takes a strong individual to endure the obstacles that take place inside a jail or prison. But how do you define strong? One of the largest misconceptions of correctional officers is that they are all over 6ft, 250 pounds, pure muscle, and grit. Hollywood movies and TV shows have also created this distorted view of officers. But this isn’t reality. Although being physically fit is an important part of the job, mental strength is what needs to be as tough as nails. Luckily, women are advanced in this department. The frontal cortex in the female brain, which is responsible for most of the game-time decision making, is larger than the male brain and leads some neuroscientists to believe that women are better at problem solving than men. Aside from all the scientific terminology, women experience harassment from inmates in every way, shape, and form. Likewise, women also receive cat-calls inches from the sidewalk on a daily basis, so the harassment is no different from those who are locked up behind bars. Luckily, they have the mental capacity strong enough to put it past them and move on with their jobs. Tough. As. Nails. 

We were cat-called, barked at, and flashed. We have two options: acknowledge the behavior and try to mitigate it or ignore it and hope it goes away. I chose to ignore it and not let it bother me. I had to be tough and not let it get under my skin.
Dana Simpkins
Technical Support Specialist

Be the Solution

If you want to be supportive of your female counterparts, start by understanding that everyone in this profession has earned the right to wear the uniform, regardless of gender. Officers who take an oath on their badge are expected to stand by their commitment of being "firm, fair and consistent" no matter what - that includes being fair to female officers. It doesn’t matter which bathroom sign has a skirt on it. What matters is if you get your team home safe. Help your fellow female officers know that they do not need to compensate for being a female in a male-dominated profession. To truly work “as a team” you have to work towards crushing the unappealing connotation of female frailty.   

References:

Chaddock, Dan (2015). First female Correctional Officers opened career doors in California prisons

Retrieved from
https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/insidecdcr/2015/03/17/first-female-correctional-officers-opened-career-doors-in-california-prisons/


Chaddock, Dan (2018). First female correctional officers faced resistance

Retrieved from
https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/insidecdcr/2018/10/11/first-female-correctional-officers-faced-resistance/


Federal Bureau of Prisons (2021). Staff Gender
Retrieved from
https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_staff_gender.jsp


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Body Measurements
Retrieved from
https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/body-measurements.htm


Dana Simpkins | Technical Support Specialist at GUARDIAN RFID