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No not again: The gender debate in corrections

Are we “man” enough to do the job?

It’s hard to believe in this day and age, we are still discussing whether or not women should be working in corrections. The recent tragic death of Sgt. Mary Ricard in Crowley County Colorado brought a flurry of debate on the Corrections One web site about the suitability of women in the job. Can we fight as well? Are we as strong? Should we be placing ourselves, mothers, sisters, wives, aunts in harms way? Are we “man” enough to do the job?

As a woman in corrections, these debates frustrate me to no end. It’s not about whether we are strong, or whether we can fight. Frankly, if an inmate wants to get you, gender doesn’t matter, he will get you. The fact that we work in a field watching over society’s most violent offenders day to day, increases the likelihood that we will have a violent encounter. As an administrator, my main goal is to make sure the staff who work for me go home everyday the same way they came in. That goes for both men and women.

I have always said gender is less important than character in this business. What matters is whether we have excellent communication skills to articulate to inmates and staff what our expectations are. Do we have integrity – doing the right thing all the time regardless of whether anyone is watching? Our integrity is tested daily and we need to be strong enough to avoid temptation – not a gender issue. We need to report wrong doing every time we it and not be selective on who or what we report. We need to have pride in what we do – wear our uniforms with pride and know that we have a chance to change lives. There are strong people out there, both men and wom¬en, who are going to succeed regardless of the circum¬stances.

In this new era of corrections, the paradigm shift from a control and punishment model to one that demands more engage¬ment with the offenders by staff may in fact be better suited for women. Women are nurturing and patient. Women are able to assist offenders in planning for their future. Women tend to be more empathetic to offenders’ needs. I know my goal as a warden is to have inmates leave my facility better than when they came in. We assist them with education, job training, mental health counseling, coping skills and provide the tools necessary for their successful re-entry.

Women also enhance the normalization of cor¬rectional facilities in relation to society in general. Many of the inmates have dysfunctional relationships with women and the professional one they have with female staff may be the only positive interaction with a female they’ve had. Women tend to be more able to multi-task and approach inmates in a less threatening manner.

So, although there will be tragedies in our business, women are here to stay and I make no apologies for that. As more and more women progress and become Assistant Wardens, Wardens and State Commissioners I hope that all corrections professionals will see the value of a diverse workforce and embrace women in corrections. May God Bless Sgt. Mary Ricard, her family and co-workers. She was a fine corrections professional who lost her life in the line of duty.

Holland, J.G. 2005. Gender and the community corrections workforce. Norfolk, Va.: Norfolk State University, Department of Criminal Justice.

Women Professionals in Corrections: A Growing Asset. Nink, Carl. MTC Institute (Centerville, UT). 2008. 32 p.

Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. During her tenure as administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University, she ran a study-abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy. In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country. Dr. Bedard has published and lectured on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Chief of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida.

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