Women in corrections face a number of obstacles

While the challenge of gender-bias is certainly present, it does not have to preclude the female officer from effectively accomplishing their job


There have been several arguments over the years as to why women should not be employed as correctional officers. Reasons for the opposition include a belief that women are physically weaker than men and can’t hold their own in a fight with male inmates — a fear that women could fall prey to an inmate and be raped by those sexually deprived and predatory male inmates. 

Lastly, an overall assumption that women are mentally weak and unable to handle the mental challenges of working in an all-male prison environment

“Good Old Boys”

Female COs are found to have exceptional communication skills that can defuse situations.
Female COs are found to have exceptional communication skills that can defuse situations.

The majority of excuses for the failure to hire women in the correctional setting could be the old school, “good old boys club” mentality from the 1970’s era. During my own career in the corrections industry, I had more issues dealing with disrespect from male supervisors than I ever had while working any male inmate population, I was assigned to. 

Over my career I have been referred to as: “honey” and “sweetie” and “sexy” and “man hater” by male supervisors and coworkers, not inmates. Once I was told by a coworker that I had no business being employed in my position, because women didn’t belong in law enforcement. 

Female correctional officers face many obstacles in their positions, many of which arise from male colleagues. The mentality of “good old boys club” has lessened over the years, but it is far from eliminated. Research supports the fact that female correctional officers are extremely effective in their positions. 

The reality is that women excel in both the correctional and patrol setting and bring tools and advantages to the job that their male counterparts cannot. 

History 

In the 70s the United States led the way in introducing women into the male prison system. By 1978, thirty-three states had women assigned to work in men’s institutions. By 1981 only four United States correctional systems resisted employing female officers. 

As the female workforce grew in correctional institutions, it became apparent that women held skills and made contributions to the field which rendered them as extremely valuable employees. Having female correctional staff has advantages which counter balance a male dominated institution. Female officers have the tendency to utilize a style of policing which is based on communication rather than physical force

Women in both corrections and on patrol are recognized for using less excessive force than men yet are not hesitant to go physical when necessary. Female officers are found to have exceptional communication skills which are beneficial and can defuse situations which could evolve into a violence.

Inmate Perceptions

Female correctional officers are here to stay. Per Title VII, Civil Rights Act of 1964, female correctional officers are “permitted to supervise both male and female inmates unless the males are nude for prolonged periods of time or must come in contact with male genitalia.”

Inmates have varying levels of respect and receptiveness for female correctional officers. Some male inmates respect female officers and have no issue with them. While other male inmates are resentful of them working among a male population. 

A female officer will utilize various strategies when presenting themselves in different correctional situations. A “Normative- feminine presentation” is typically the officer who is perceived as most feminine in appearance and least aggressive in attitude. In contrast, a “hyper-masculine” female officer is viewed as being aggressive, unbending and masculine in appearance.

Depending on how a female guard handles herself with the male inmate population, she will either gain or lose respect. Interestingly, recent studies show that a Normative-feminine presentation is the most accepted and conducive for cohesiveness while working among a male population. The balanced, calm, relaxed and communicative manner of interaction has positive results among the inmate population. Sometimes the perception of being overly inmate-friendly can cause resentment among male correctional officers who prefer a more masculine and dominant dynamic of policing. However, a balanced approach with inmates can create a calm atmosphere within a housing unit. This type of presence and authority makes for establishing mutual respect and compliance from the inmate.

The hyper-masculine female officer falls into the dominant, heavy style of policing, however, is not always well respected among the male inmate population. Often the female officer with harsh, less feminine characteristics, abrupt, unapproachable, hardcore, aggressive energy and controlling presence will be met with hostility from inmates and even male colleagues. This response from inmate population is not to her outward appearance, but, to the female officer who attempts to heavily overcompensate for her gender through demanding and commanding with no flexibility. 

An Officer to be Respected

Inmate perceptions of female officers can be positive or negative dependent upon the interaction. If inmates are held accountable with the expectation of having appropriate and respectful interactions with the females who are guarding them, there will be a higher potential for cohesiveness among inmates and officers. The female officer will then be viewed as simply the officer who is to be respected.

Women who enter the profession of corrections must face a number of obstacles. While the challenge of gender-bias is certainly present, it does not have to preclude the female officer from effectively accomplishing their job. The woman who succeeds in the field of corrections will adapt through fostering her internal fortitude and mental toughness so she can navigate the many challenges she faces daily. 

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