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Then and Now: Why Women are Integral to A Successful Corrections System
By Gary York
Published: 02/08/2016

Femaleofficer-3

Who was your states first female corrections officer?
The first certified female corrections officer in the state of Florida was Eva Lee Mitchell who started working in 1970. This was the year in Florida that women and minorities began to come into the agency in greater numbers. With the number of female inmates on the rise, Florida had the first correctional officer graduating class that included women in 1970. For Florida as well as many other states this was the beginning of history for women in uniform within the corrections field. It would prove to be a positive move. Woman did work with female inmates prior to 1970 but not in certified positions. In some states before women could attend the correctional academy they were called “Prison Matrons”, women who worked with female inmates.

Another reason for the sudden interest in women and minorities in the corrections field was the amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other legislation that opened doors for female officers. Prisons had been exposed for operating in an unconstitutional manner. It took some states longer than others to come around to accept these changes but eventually everyone got on board, however not without some resistance from male officers and some upper management. The male dominated field would now begin changing its role not only with gender but with a new focus of rehabilitation and therapy as opposed to control and discipline. Safety and control would remain an important factor but convincing some people women should work in corrections would be a difficult task. It would take several years to prove to everyone that the mixture of male and female officers was a good approach to handling discipline as well as conflict resolution and understanding.

Over the decades we as professionals have come to realize everyone has their own set of skills. Men and women do not differ in that area. Some excel faster than others. The bottom line is we all need to work together as a team and use each other’s skill set to the advantage of the agency and the success of completing our mission. Men would have to learn not let their ego get in the way of safety and security. If a female officer can quell a disturbance just by her voice or presence then step back and allow her to de-escalate the situation. It does not matter who calms the storm. The goal is to maintain “Safety and Control” of the prison and everyone go home safe at the end of the shift. When the inmates see all officers, male and female working together as a team a strong message is sent to the inmates. The inmates will begin to realize they cannot separate the officers and manipulate them. Inmates play on weakness and cannot stand to see officers work together as one. Their goal is to play officers against each other and separate the weak link like mountain lions that prey on mule deer affected with a disease. Keep the chain strong when dealing with inmates. Discuss any differences away from sight and sound of any inmates.

Females are too small and too weak to handle a job in corrections.
This is far from the truth; it is all in the way an officer presents herself to the inmates. A female officer can portray herself to the inmates as “Poor, poor pitiful me” and appear weak in the eyes of the inmates or approach with the strong “Firm but fair” I cannot be manipulated approach. Man or woman, an officer is an officer and the best weapon an officer can have is knowledge. We must have knowledge and understanding of our surroundings. We need to know the habits of inmates as a group and individually as well as the prison layout. Know the policies and procedures and if you have an inmate handbook that is provided to the inmates read it and know it. Many of the inmates learn the policies and procedures over the years and will test your knowledge. Weather a male or female officer the inmates know if you understand your job, if they see you do not know your job they will play you. Let everyone know you are serious about your job and you know what you are talking about. Display confidence and certainty and show no weakness. It is fine to be humane and treat the inmates with respect but give direct commands and let them know what you expect. With this combination you will earn the respect of the inmates and your co-workers.

“With confidence, you have won before you have started” (Marcus Garvey)
“Knowledge is power, if you can control information, you can control people.” (Tom Clancy)


Interpersonal skills can be used by men and women of all sizes. I have seen big strong male officers injured by inmates as well as female officers injured by inmates. I have seen a female officer five feet tall talk an inmate into compliance. If force is necessary we wait for back-up if we can. If we must defend ourselves on the spot then fight to go home at the end of shift. No one has ever said being a correctional officer is easy. It is dangerous, stressful and tiring. Correctional officers face each day with only pepper spray and their fellow officers to back-up them up against inmates who exercise daily and get plenty of rest. Male or female officers can both fall prey to inmates if you allow them to manipulate you. It all comes down to being firm and standing your ground. This can be done without being disrespectful. For example, inmate Jones walks by and states, “Officer Smith your hair looks very nice today”, Officer Smith replies, “Inmate Jones it is not your job to worry about my hair, carry on with your business.” Inmate Jones was fishing for a reaction. If Officer Smith would have said thank you she would have been wrong. In this case she was firm but not disrespectful. If inmate Jones would have continued with more compliments then it would be time to write him up for “Disrespect”. Once the inmates realize you cannot be played the respect will follow and your job will be easier.

Female officers will fall in love with inmates.
This has occurred and I have investigated many cases of staff/inmate relationships but not only with female officers. I have investigated numerous male officers sexually involved with female inmates in women’s prisons. Contraband was provided to the female inmates in return for sexual favors. It goes both ways folks, this is not a one-way-street. A few bad apples make the honest, hard-working officers look bad in the eyes of the public. Being involved with an inmate places everyone in danger and jeopardizes the safety and security of the prison. Male or female, if you think there is even a slight chance you may fall in love or lust with an inmate get out of corrections or seek counseling. You are putting yourself and everyone else in danger.

Female officers should be mindful not to wear their clothing too tight, never put up with sexual harassment from inmates or co-workers, do not get complacent and always be firm, fair and consistent. Not only your words but your appearance and actions tell the inmates a lot about you. Save the fancy make-up, painted nails and shiny ear rings for your home life, it is not for prison. Inmates look for anything to compliment you on.

Woman facing the future.
Today more than ever women are entering the correctional field. The woman to male ratio varies from state, federal and private prisons. Surveys have shown as low as 13 percent women working in federal prisons to as high as 46 percent women working in private prisons. State prisons average around 36 percent female officers. Programs are becoming more available for female officers. Women facing the future is a program that is for female correctional officers and employees. It promotes professionalism, encourages networking and places an emphasis on education for women in the corrections field. In Florida this program started in 1991. Every state should have this program or a similar program.

We need female officers on the front line.
Female officers approach problem solving in a different manner than men. Approaching situations with different ideas is a good thing. Female officers are known to be less authoritarian in their approach to problem solving looking for a permanent solution. Women in many cases are just better at defusing violent confrontations without physical force. Let’s face it men, women are better communicators and their presence alone has made many inmates stop acting violent or stop having violent outbursts. Men want to revert to physical force faster than women. Do not get me wrong, there are incidents in which we end up having to use force to protect the lives of others or ourselves. I am just saying that female officers have a better track record of quelling a disturbance without using force. By all means if bodily harm or overt actions of an attack are present then use force to protect yourself. As I said earlier an officer is an officer, we all have different skill sets and we need to work together and use them to our advantage.

Today the highest ranking person in the Florida Department of Corrections is a woman. Secretary Julie L. Jones runs the third largest prison system in the United States. Many women across our country are now wardens, jail administrators or elected sheriffs and appointed chief of police. Women in corrections have evolved into leaders and are here to stay. By the way my wife is a 32 1/2 year veteran correctional officer and she gives me good advice and makes us both strong because we work together for the same common goal.

Gary York is a retired Senior Prison Inspector and is an Ethics and Crisis Intervention Instructor. He is also the author of the books "Corruption Behind Bars" and "Inside the Inner Circle".

Other Articles by Gary York.


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