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Women as corrections professionals
By Frank DiMarino
Published: 07/06/2009

Security woman Frank DiMarino, J.D., LLM, is the Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Kaplan University. He spent over two decades prosecuting federal offenses and understands the evolving landscape and challenges facing the criminal justice industry. Frank can be reached at criminaljustice@kaplan.edu

As women represent a growing percentage of the corrections workforce, they demonstrate that it is the skill and individual’s contribution, and not the gender, which makes for a successful and valuable corrections professional. Women hold significant positions as officers and administrators across all types of correctional facilities in all 50 states. According to the American Correctional Association’s September 30, 2007 report on Adult Correctional Personnel by Gender and Race, women represented 37 percent of adult correctional personnel (144,274, excluding federal prison personnel) and 51 percent of juvenile corrections personnel. The ratios of male to female personnel varied from state to state. This is in sharp contrast to 1969 when women made up 12 percent of the correctional work force. [1]

A Quick Look Back

Until the latter part of the twentieth century, men worked as correctional officers in male units and women worked in female units or in one of the few female-only prisons. Moreover, females were only allowed to work at entry gates, control system booths, and administrative positions away from the residential units. Most importantly, female correctional officers were forbidden to have direct contact with male inmates. In 1978, four state correctional agencies reported that they did not hire women to work as officers in male facilities. In a 10-year follow up, it was found that all states had hired women as correctional officers in male facilities, and the percentage of women correctional officers in male facilities had increased to 6 percent. In 2001, women made up 24.5 percent of all correctional officers in male facilities.[1]

For decades, many females employed in correctional systems were not promoted since they were denied the same access to job opportunities and professional responsibilities as their male counterparts. In some cases, women who had 5, 6, 7, years of experience, and through no fault of their own, could not be promoted merely because of their gender.[2] In the early 1980s, however, as a result of litigation and steadfast performance of their job responsibilities, women began to be recognized and promoted.

Court rulings provided increased opportunities for women to work in the secure residential areas of prisons, and with that, came increased opportunities for advancement and promotion. Female correctional officers now could progress on the path to sergeant, lieutenant, major, and even colonel with their institution. Their experience, ethical behavior, dedication, education, skills, and job performance became the basis for promotion and increased pay.

Women in Corrections: Vital to the Profession

Today, women work in both uniformed and non-uniformed positions within corrections. They seek and hold correctional officer positions in secure residential areas in male units. They have responsibilities that put them in direct contact with male convicts, including the vital roles of providing treatment and counseling for mental health, drug abuse, anger management, and alcohol rehabilitation. Significant milestones in the role of women correctional officers took place as the courts determined that females supervising male prisoners were permitted to conduct searches such as pat down searches. Also, in emergency lock down situations, if female correctional officers are present, they may provide security while strip searches occur -- of course provided that there is no gawking or physical contact with an inmate. These are the same job responsibilities and requirements expected of male correctional officers.

Additional duties now permitted for female correctional officers in secure male residential units include supplying clean clothing to prisoners, assuring the security of prisoners during showers, and responding to incidents no matter where the events occur. According to one of my colleagues Terry Campbell, a former warden in the state of Arkansas, a significant finding is that female staff may have a calming effect on male prisoners. This is attributed to male inmates potentially displaying a level of respect toward women based on environmental and cultural roles of women in inmates’ families. In other cases, an assault upon a female correctional officer may result in a male prisoner coming to her defense. In such sensitive situations, a female correctional officer may prevent violence, harm, or an escalation of an incident. Experience has shown that female correctional officers may be as fair, firm, and consistent with enforcement of rules and policies as their male counterparts.

When Campbell was a prison warden at the Cummins Prison in Arkansas, he had female officers in all security roles and supervisory positions. In fact, he had always had women working for him dating back to when he was in uniform and later as assistant warden responsible for the tactical team. He found early-on that qualified women, just like men, were valuable members of a tactical team that handles disturbances and emergency situations in prisons—from fights in the recreation yard and mess to mass disturbances like riots to lock downs and sit-down demonstrations.[3]

Campbell’s experience is not likely different from other wardens’ experience. Women have been able to handle threatening situations with proper training and education. Female correctional officers are able to effectively handle volatile and uncertain situations, such as when moving inmates for feeding, moving high profile offenders in and out of the prison, as well as during showering. Women have proven that they are watchful and effective when gang members arrive into confinement and rival gang members become assertive.

It takes a special person to work in corrections. How a correctional officer uses emotional intelligence to handle a situation and how they communicate with someone determines the outcome. Inmates know the correctional staff because they spend the better part of 365 days of the year with the inmates. Inmates know how to “push buttons” and an officer has to be “smarter” than they are.[4]

Females in some correctional systems may still have to navigate “Good Ol’ Boy” networks, but a tenacious spirit of excelling in learning skills, applying leadership skills, and committing to performance excellence in the 21st century will more likely lead to promotion and advancement within corrections.

  1. Morton, J.B. ACA & Women Working in Corrections, Corrections Today, October 1, 2005.
  2. See, generally, Greer, Kimberly, When Women Hold the Keys: Gender, Leadership, and Correctional Policy, Whitepaper for the Minnesota State University, August, 2008.
  3. Interview of Mr. Terry Campbell, May 14, 2009.
  4. Id.


  1. hamiltonlindley on 03/24/2020:

    He has blue eyes. Cold like steel. His legs are wide. Like tree trunks. And he has a shock of red hair, red, like the fires of hell. His antics were known from town to town as he was a droll card and often known as a droll farceur. Hamilton Lindley with his madcap pantaloon is a zany adventurer and a cavorter with a motley troupe of buffoons.

  2. soccermom1122 on 02/19/2010:

    I would like tp stat off by saying that i just recently got hired on as a correctional officer i start the traiining academy march 11th. im 24 and a criminal justice major. i truly enjoy learning about or nations criminal justice system and i am looking forward to being an co. this is a life experiance and i am excited! hopefully this will also halp me with my educational goals. I am virturally a virgin when it comes to learning about how the system works but i cant wait to finally do something worth my time and commitment!

  3. centella on 08/26/2009:

    Bravo for all the female who work in correction, why? Because must of them work better than the male officers doing great work. Stamina and desire to get the same respect level and recognition in one of the best hostile environment work.

  4. ginia1948 on 07/02/2009:

    The good ol boy system is still very much alive in law enforcement and corrections. If you file a lawsuit the chances are slim to none that you will find another job, and if you stay where you are they will make your life a living hell as I well know. I just think God every day that I will be retiring in eight months after 24 years. Would I do it again,Hell no.

  5. debmac on 07/01/2009:

    Very well stated. However the good ol' boy system is still alive and well in many aspects of corrections.Until every state adopts standards and qualifications that an individual has to have experience prior to becoming an administrator then we will continue to have political appoinments or appointments of those who are unqualified for the position. This in turn will result in an increase in lawsuits to the detriment of the facility.

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