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Top 3 challenges for women in corrections in 2012

Although it has gotten easier to survive in a male dominated culture, challenges still face women in corrections

I have worked in male dominated professions my entire life. I started in a county jail in the 80s where the only women were me, the nursing staff and a former Jail Matron who had managed to work her way up to Assistant Superintendent. When I got there in the 80’s, I had little trouble adapting to jail life.

The inmates seemed receptive but I faced challenges with the staff. I remember being asked by a seasoned correctional officer if I was there to find a husband.

Husband hunting in the county jail was not my intention. Another staff member, a Sergeant, told me he had no problem with me working there but he “would never let his wife or daughter work in a jail”. These comments stuck with me as I progressed in my career.

I moved from the county jail to a University where I spent the better part of my professional life. If you haven’t noticed, universities are another male dominated institution. Now, working as a Warden in a male prison, those challenges faced in the early 80’s are more apparent.

Although it has gotten easier to survive in a male dominated culture, challenges still face women in corrections. I decided to survey several female staff members ranging in rank from a rookie officer to the Chief of Security to gather their thoughts on the top three challenges female staff will face in 2012. Here is what they came up with:

1. Earning the same respect as our male counterpart
2. Averting violent incidents
3. Managing work and home life

The first issue female staff brought up was earning respect. There is still staff and inmates who do not feel women should be working in male prisons. As case manager Stankeisha Burchell put it, “Women come in with the stigma that we are weak and easily swayed. This makes us greater targets for bringing in contraband, establishing personal relationships, and many other forms of intolerable disrespect and misconduct. We must work extra hard to convey a strong, firm and unwavering disciplinary tactic, yet be professional and reasonably approachable.” Women need to gain the respect of both inmates and fellow staff.

A rookie officer, Ms. Sanchez shared, “I feel that my ability to do the same job as a male corrections officer is often questioned. Therefore, inmates constantly challenge you and male co-workers doubt you.” The best way to earn respect is to be firm, fair and consistent. We also need to function with the highest level of integrity and do the right thing all the time.

Another mistake I have seen that can impact your respect level is having relationships within the facility with other staff. In my career, I have never seen anything good come out of officers having relationships with each other. Although not a policy violation in most places, it is not usually a good idea. My motto has been, “Don’t get your honey, where you get your money.”

If our peers and those in our custody see that we work with integrity, are firm and consistent in our approach, and don’t show favorites, respect will follow.

The second challenge for 2012 is averting violent incidents. Chief of Security Lakichia Wilson has 15 years as a correction professional. She points out, “Women have to be even more careful in what situations we put ourselves in, for example, isolating yourself from other staff members when you are talking to an inmate.

Try to have a witness to what you are doing and how you are handling the inmate so if an allegation is made someone will be able to speak on your behalf. Be near a camera so your actions will be caught on tape. Being correctionally aware of your surroundings and you can reduce the probability of violent incidents.” Don’t be afraid, but be aware. Know who you are dealing with and conduct yourself as the consummate professional that you are. This will not make you immune to violence but it may reduce the probability.

Lastly, the struggle for women, in any field, is to juggle home and work life. In corrections, it may be even more difficult because of the nature of the work we do. Lt. Sheila Raines says, “Leaving work at work is a problem for females in corrections. A female in corrections gives orders all day. The stress level is high and to leave work at work can be a problem. It is difficult to relax at home to let go of that “take charge mind” with the husband, kids, cat, dog.”

I remember my husband reminding me one time to leave my “warden face” at work. Many women are still the primary caregivers of children and often take the lead on domestic chores. So, if both partners are working it still may be up to the female to take over the primary responsibilities of the household. It is so important, in high stress jobs like ours, that we take time out to relax and reflect. We need to go on vacation, we need to learn to relax and we need to be able to leave work at work. Just as we check our home life at the front gate entering a correctional facility, we must check our work life at the front door when entering our home.

In my 20-plus years working in male dominated professions, I must say things have improved greatly. We are getting accepted by our male counterparts and showing them that we can achieve great things as a team. We can offer a different management style as women which can improve the atmosphere of the work place. After all, Together Everyone Achieves More.

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.