|Has the Presence of Women in Male Correctional Facilities Changed that Environment? - Part 2|
|By Dr. Susan Jones|
Continued from "Has the Presence of Women in Male Correctional Facilities Changed that Environment? - Part 1"...
I took the issue on as a personal mission. I assigned my administrative staff to find a good product that didn’t depend upon finding a local seamstress each time a uniform was needed. In the year 2009, I didn’t think that this would be difficult. I was wrong. What we found was that maternity uniforms were not a part of the bid process and they were not available from the vendor that secured the bid for the shirts in our department. We were not able to find any vendor that could approximate the uniform shirt with a maternity uniform shirt. When we returned to the approved vendor, negotiations began regarding a custom-made alternative. This alternative would cost more than twice the cost of a regular uniform shirt, but it offered consistency from the vendor and required no additional work at the facility. The pants were not as difficult to find a suitable fix. The correctional industries program were handling the construction of uniform BDU type pants and they were willing to experiment with placing maternity panels in the pants. Many prototypes were made and these pants were given to pregnant officers for feedback until a good product was developed. This product was not significantly more expensive than regular uniform pants.
Armed with this information, I presented this plan for maternity uniforms at a warden’s meeting. I used the word “armed” intentionally, I knew that this would not be a welcomed topic and would either result in my being attacked or ignored. In the end, I got a little of both reactions, but the Deputy Director present approved the plan and directed that all facilities purchase a range of sizes in quantities that would adequately address their staffing needs. The cost for the initial purchase was higher than normal uniform allowances, however the shirts would be available for pregnant employees to exchange as their needs changed and when they were finished the shirts could be laundered and used for other employees if they were still in good condition. I was excited by this decision and at the same time I was disgusted that this issue had to be dealt with a full 23 years after I had a custom made uniform shirt made for my first pregnancy.
The facilities for which I was the warden went to work to order a full range of sizes for the needs of my employees. Coincidently, I quickly had need for this stock pile of uniforms when several of my female officers revealed that they were pregnant at the same time. These women helped the administrative assistant in charge of uniform ordering to determine a good number for stock in the future. I was also approached by many employees, male and female, to express appreciation for the new uniform option. More than one pregnant officer told me how much better they felt by being able to present a professional image in the new uniforms. I was also approached by female employees who had been pregnant in the past and while they were appreciative that something had been done, they expressed frustration that nothing was done to help them. I knew that the system had let these women down and repeatedly apologized for the oversight.
When I was reassigned a few years later to a different facility, it never occurred to me to check to see if they had complied with the direction regarding maternity uniforms. I didn’t ask until I saw a pregnant officer in an oversized shirt that hung down to her knees. When I asked her why she didn’t ask for a maternity shirt, she responded that she had no idea there were any. In fact, this was not her first pregnancy while working as an officer in this department and she never even thought to ask about any changes in uniform options. What I discovered is that this facility did not follow the directive to order maternity uniforms, so I asked for help from my previous facility to provide maternity uniforms for this particular officer. Then, I instructed my administrative assistant to place an adequate order of maternity uniforms for my current facility.
When I discovered the maternity uniforms were not ordered at my new facility I started inquiring of other wardens. For the most part, they had not followed the directive and some even didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Facilities that did not order the maternity shirts included those that had female wardens. I don’t include this fact to sound sexist, but I did expect that the female wardens would understand the issue and be eager to rectify the problem. I was shocked to find out that was not the case. I tried to remedy this issue again, by using two different approaches. First, I asked the administrative assistant that worked with uniforms at my new facility to send the information out to all the others that ordered uniforms. In that message, she included the wording from the minutes of the wardens meeting from three years prior. Then, I contacted the wardens of the other facilities to let them know about the oversight and that I had instructed my administrative assistant to resend the information.
I didn’t receive any feedback from the other wardens, but based on the feedback from the administrative assistants, it was obvious that some had not complied and still, others did not intend to comply with the directive. I don’t know the current status of maternity uniforms in the Colorado Department of Corrections because I have retired from that work. However, I still live in a prison town and just last week saw a pregnant officer in a local store, wearing an oversized uniform shirt hanging down to her knees.
The acceptance of women into the correctional environment and their effect upon that environment is difficult to accurately measure. While the uniforms for pregnant officers may seem like an unlikely way to judge these questions, I propose that it is a good measurement. If the environment has not even modified the uniforms available for employees based on their gender, then perhaps other modifications that are less easy to observe have not been made. The other surprising issue that relates directly to maternity uniforms is the fact that no women were complaining. The type of women that are attracted to corrections as a career usually possess assertiveness skills, or they soon develop them as a result of working in corrections (Jenne and Kersting 1996). The absence of complaint may mean that they were in fact ok with the uniform options, but the response I personally received after the change in options doesn’t support this stance. The absence of complaint may also mean that there were other, more important issues worth fighting for.
Another more troubling option is the possibility that they felt powerless to ask for a change that affected only pregnant women and that to ask for this would draw attention to their gender and their pregnancy. In the absence of better choices, the pregnant officers took the options that were given to them, used over-size shirts, and made the best of the situation.
The question that I posed at the beginning of this article is difficult to answer: has the presence of women in male correctional facilities changed that environment? This story does not promote confidence that women are fully accepted as professionals in this, still, very male-dominated world. Short of full equality and acceptance into the corrections workforce, female employees cannot hope to effect system-wide positive change that “normalizes” the environment and ultimately reduces inmate recidivism.
Cheeseman, K. A. and R. Worley (2006). "Women on the wing: Inmate perceptions about female correctional officer job competency in a southern prison system." The Southwest Journal of Criminal Jusitce 3(2): 86.
Greer, K. (2008). When women hold the keys: Gender, leadership, and correctional policy. MTC Institute. Centerville, UT.
Jenne, D. L. and R. C. Kersting (1996). "Agression and women correctional officers in male prisons." The Prison Journal 76: 442-460.
Management and Training Corporation (2008). Women professionals in corrections: A growing asset. Retrieved from http://www.mtctrains.com/public/uploads/1/2010/10/WomenProfessionalsInCorrections-Aug08.pdf.
Pollock, J. M. (2004). Prisons and prison life: Costs and consequences. Los Angeles, CA, Roxbury Publishing co.
Smith, B. (2003). "Watching you, watching me." Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 15: 225.
Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis.
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