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Today’s Challenges for Women in Corrections
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 06/03/2019

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Despite the opening of the corrections field generally to women beginning in the 1970s, it was during the opening years of the twenty-first century that women made the most substantial gains. In 2001, females represented 24.5 percent of the correctional staff in male facilities. By 2007 females represented approximately 40 percent of all correctional staff in adult facilities and by 2008 42 percent of staff in juvenile facilities. In many agencies women are on the verge of becoming the majority.

Yet female corrections professionals still face numerous challenges. Females tend to leave the corrections field at a higher rate than males. It is difficult to determine how much of this higher turnover results from entry into a field that was historically male-dominated, especially given what the body of research tells us about stress for corrections professionals, particularly those new to the field.

Studies in 1982 and 1984 revealed a disturbing discrepancy between the correctional workforce and the population in general. While the average life expectancy at the time was 75, for corrections professionals it was only 59. Research in 2001 confirmed that corrections officers had more health issues and a shorter lifespan than the general population. It is reasonable to wonder—and research has explored the question—whether the stresses unique to the corrections profession are linked to these disparities.

Certainly there are other associated risks, but workplace stress seems to be a major factor. A 2005 study reported that the divorce rate among corrections officers was twice that of other blue-collar professions. The 1982 study referenced previously reported a divorce rate of 27 percent among officers in the survey (the national rate in 1982 was 5.1 percent), with 39 percent reporting financial troubles and a shocking 88 percent reporting heart attacks.

Certainly the nature of corrections makes it inherently stressful, but surveys have shown that work-life balance tends to suffer significantly for those in the field, particularly for the large number who work a shift schedule. The problem of shift variance tends to be especially pronounced among female officers, many of whom are single mothers and face resultant childcare issues.

Females entering traditionally male-dominated occupations such as law enforcement, the military, and construction have faced two general categories of obstacles. One is hostility borne of the belief that “women can’t do this job,” or a hostile environment resulting from sexual innuendoes and jokes or simply insensitive language that is often tolerated by supervisors who fail to see such behavior as inappropriate. This sort of environment has become less common over the years as more and more women have entered such occupations, although the ongoing struggle that the U.S. military faces with sexual harassment and assault shows that the problem is hardly solved.

There is a second set of obstacles that are less overt and more insidious. Often acting out of genuine concern, male colleagues may shield females from “tough” assignments or tasks, be overly protective, or overlook mistakes or training opportunities. While such behavior might seem kind and helpful, it actually hinders the female’s occupational growth and can create barriers to future promotion. Such attitudes tend to arise out of cultural norms regarding appropriate “male” and “female” roles, and again in the U.S. military has played out in the debate over how males might react to wounded or endangered female soldiers in combat.

Women have traditionally adapted to such environments in a few different ways. One is “going along to get along,” in which females play along with sexual humor in particular. Another is to become “more male” by shedding traditionally “female” attributes such as empathy. But now some disturbing statistics raise the question of how the historical power imbalance between males and females may be affecting the behavior of some female corrections professionals.

Data collected in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act and reported by two Bureau of Justice Statistics studies covering 2008-09 for juvenile facilities and 2008 for adult facilities showed that females were more likely than males to commit sexual abuse of inmates. Specifically, females were responsible for 95 percent of sexual abuse incidents in juvenile facilities and 80 percent of staff sexual misconduct in state facilities. The victims were almost always male.

As previously mentioned, in 2008 females represented 42 percent of staff in state juvenile facilities, meaning abuse was committed at more than twice the rate of male staff. Some details in the statistics do bear attention. First, more juveniles reported non-coerced sexual contact with staff (6.4 percent) than reported coerced contact (4.3 percent). Second, juveniles who had suffered prior sexual assault reported sexual abuse in their current facility at almost two and a half times the rate of those with no prior sexual assault history (24.1 percent versus 10.1 percent). The survey did exclude some claims of abuse based on inconsistent responses, unrealistic dates or personal information, and similar indicators of untruthfulness.

The adult facility survey was conducted among former state prisoners. Among respondents reporting staff sexual misconduct, 79 percent were male reporting misconduct by a female staff member, with an additional 5 percent reporting misconduct by both male and female staff. Inmates characterized sexual conduct with staff (of either gender) as “willing” in far more cases (4.6 percent of respondents) than “unwilling” (1.2 percent), though this number was biased by inmate gender: 4.8 percent of male inmates reported willing sexual contact with staff compared to 2.6 percent of females, and conversely 2.5 percent of female inmates reported unwilling sexual contact with staff versus 1.1 percent of males.

By no means is this an indictment of female corrections professionals. The incidents described by these two surveys represent a small percentage of all female staffers, and the fact remains that females are becoming more common in corrections because on the whole compared to males they are better educated, more law-abiding, and less prone to substance abuse. But it seems likely that a long history of male-female power imbalance may well have led a few women to abuse the staff-offender power imbalance that is inherent in the correctional setting. The entire corrections community bears the responsibility for identifying and resolving the root cause of these issues.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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