By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Today’s CDCR has numerous women working in all aspects including wardens, correctional officers, parole agents and other leadership roles. While they have proven their capabilities and value many times over, they didn’t have an easy path. In the early 1970s, the department made a concerted effort to hire and train women to work in the state’s prisons but those early cadets faced resistance and open hostility from coworkers, supervisors, inmates and even a state senator.
The first female cadets
One of the department’s first trainers was Lt. William Richard Wilkinson, a veteran of the corrections department, employed from 1951 until 1981.
“It was in the second academy that women came into the department. We were not really prepared for them,” writes Wilkinson in the book “Prison Work.”
The department’s Central Office in Sacramento tried to pave the way prior to the women’s arrival at the academy, which started in 1972 at the old South Facility at Soledad State Prison. Despite his role in training the new female cadets, Wilkinson was skeptical and didn’t believe women should work in a men’s institution.
Dubbed Career Opportunity Development, the program’s purpose was to “(get) people off the welfare rolls. Both male and female. … I had the first eight females in the department. Moreover, nobody told me I was getting them,” Wilkinson wrote. “So at the last minute I had eight women standing there with no place to sleep, no living quarters. So I sent them to a motel for that night. It was already 9 o’clock and I had to drive them to Salinas because there was nothing around Soledad that was open.” He claimed he foot the bill himself for that first hotel stay and said it wasn’t easy getting reimbursed.
After their first night, Wilkinson arranged to have the women stay in the vacant bachelors’ quarters. The lieutenant had misgivings about training women and about the role they were to play in corrections.
“The assertion coming from Sacramento was they are just as capable as a man and that kind of thing, which was not true,” he wrote. “Of course they were intelligent enough. If you want to get into the physical part of it, however, that is a personal thing. If you are looking for help, then a 115-pound woman is not going to be advantageous compared to having a 160-pound male grabbing hold of a convict.”
He was also concerned about being fair to the female employees and not giving them preferential treatment.
“The reluctance, conscious or subconscious, with the women meant you had to pay close attention, or you would wind up putting your female in (choice) positions. It is not fair to the female, and it is not fair to the officer you kick out (of that position). Not that they should not work there, but if you do not watch it, and you take a close look, you have the women isolated someplace,” he wrote.
Wilkinson organized and set up the first three sessions of the academy, then returned to his post at California Medical Facility (CMF).
“I will never forget the day when I came back to my office at CMF and found my office filled with purses. The first female correctional officers had arrived and the watch sergeant had sent them all over and they left their purses all over my desk and everything else,” he wrote.
After a few days, the purses no longer found their way inside the institution and were secured in the trunks of the female officers’ vehicles, he wrote.
CIM hires female officers
“In 1973, women correctional officers were hired for the first time to work at California Institution for Men. At the time, there was a certain amount of vocal opposition from some inmates, custodial staff and management personnel about the wisdom of assigning females to work inside the security area of a men’s prison,” wrote Michael Brown in the book “The History of Chino Prison: The First Fifty Years of the California Institution for Men 1941-1991.”
Brown, an inmate who had spent decades in the system, was asked to pen the book by then Chief Deputy Warden Bob Bales. The inmate author had research and writing experience, which won over CDW Bales.
“In 1978, because of his outstanding writing skills he was selected to write the ‘History of Folsom Prison’ to commemorate that institution’s centennial celebration,” Bales wrote. “The (CIM) Anniversary Committee was extremely pleased with the informal history researched and written by Mike Brown, and particularly that he placed stress on the more positive factors that make CIM such a unique institution. We are most appreciative of his effort. … The book gives our dedicated employees a sense of pride and accomplishment that they are part of history.”
The first female correctional officers were treated the same as other officers as far as assignments were considered.
According to Brown’s book, “The first female correctional officers hired at (CIM) in 1973 were Geri McLaughlin, Shirley McGee, Delphine Williams and Dorothy Killlian.”
“The policy at (CIM) regarding assignment for women correctional officers was formulated through trial and error, as it was at every other correctional facility. The women officers started on the First Watch (midnight to 8 a.m.), but seniority policy dictated their assignment to that watch in any case,” Brown wrote. “As time went by, women correctional officers were gradually assigned to nearly every position or post. … Prisons are no different than any other male-dominated occupation with regard to their attitude toward accepting women as equals, even though the ‘weaker sex’ had demonstrated over many years that they … are equal to their male counterparts in relation to risks, hazards and responsibilities.”
Resistance from lawmaker
Despite the changes in hiring policy, state Senate Resolution 54 (SR 54) aimed to take things at a slower pace.
On June 21, 1973, the resolution offered by Senator H.L. Richardson sought “a moratorium on the hiring of female correctional officers in state correctional institutions which have all male residents (because the new practice) poses a threat to lives and limbs of corrections officers, other correctional personnel, civilians and inmate populations, based on the obvious physical and sexual differences of men and women.”
SR 54 also claimed “there is no dispute of the fact that female corrections officers cannot handle all of the functions and responsibilities required of a corrections officer (and) the current practice of providing women corrections officers to function in specific (less hazardous) areas only creates discrimination in reverse (and) reduces the available manpower to quell inmate disturbances when they occur.”
The resolution went so far as to claim “further reason this practice is dangerous is man’s natural instinct to protect a female (and) his safety is jeopardized when his attentions are diverted from the inmate problem on hand to that of protecting the lives of female officers who might be present.”
Sen. Richardson cast more light on the issue by penning an opinion piece in the Healdsburg Tribune, published on Sept. 27, 1973.
“I … said (equal opportunity) would be used as a tool to force women into jobs where they couldn’t perform as efficiently as men. For this, I was called a hater of women, an unfair legislator and a male chauvinist pig by the leading women’s rights organizations. I was right. Nothing proves it more than the insistence on the part of the Department of Corrections … that they hire female guards so they won’t be accused of discriminating against women. San Quentin, Soledad and Vacaville now have female prison guards. That’s the truth. Start a ridiculous program and the foolishness will soon compound itself,” he wrote.
He claimed women would be a target of inmates, would distract male officers during violent incidents and it threatened the safety of the institution.
“This is the heart of the whole problem and the main reason why I introduced a resolution to stop the dangerous and silly hiring of female guards at San Quentin and other maximum security prisons,” Sen. Richardson wrote. “For thousands of years, perhaps millions, the average male has (rushed) to the aid of the stricken female, and no Equal Rights Amendment, no law, no legislative debate, no rantings of women’s lib can alter the behavior patterns between male and female, or the biological facts. It sounds corny but it’s true.”
SR 54 appears to have been stuck in committee and by Nov. 30, 1974, was “from committee without further action.”
In mid-1974, in part thanks to the efforts of Deputy Director Arlene M. Becker, the prison system made a concerted effort to hire, train and retain females.
Becker was appointed June 1, 1972, to help oversee the integration of women into the custody side of the workforce.
“The department cannot supervise the feelings and opinion of the managers, but it can supervisor their behavior,” she wrote at the time.
Becker would later be appointed director of Parole and Community Services.
Female Folsom Prison officers speak out
In 1977, there were eight female correctional officers working at Folsom State Prison. They spoke to the Associated Press about their experiences in stories published Jan. 20 of that year.
“Maria Tingey says the inmates at … Folsom Prison sometimes yell angrily at her, but they always feel sorry and apologize later,” the AP reported. “They’re just not suited to taking orders from women, said Joyce Zink, another of the eight women (officers) at the all-male, 1,800-inmate prison. (Correctional Officer) Janet Matsuda says she likes her work, but she cautions other women about entering the field.”
“They should get good counseling,” Matsuda said. “You should really think about whether you have the ability to do it. … Women have to prove themselves more … to their supervisors, their fellow officers and the inmates. It isn’t fair but it’s fact.”
Tingey, a mother of three and a former prison office worker, was blunt about women coming into the male-dominated workforce of the prison. She had also previously worked as an officer at California Institution for Men.
“A woman should consider whether she can do more good than harm in this work. The convict will try their best, as they do with every officer, to make you uncomfortable. They have a new trick every day,” Tingey told the AP.
Regarding wives of male correctional officers, Tingey said they also presented a problem, worrying about their husbands’ safety if partnered with a woman officer in an emergency.
“Folsom is a very conservative place. We’re not totally accepted yet,” Tingey said.
Officer Zink, the only woman at Folsom Prison allowed to work in the cellblocks, said she didn’t appreciate the different treatment.
“I don’t like being restricted in my job because I’m a woman,” she said. “The point is that if a task is being done in a professional manner, what does it matter if the person doing it is male or female?”
Women officers faced harassment
While women were added to the corrections workforce, many found hostile work environments. In the early 1980s, it all came to a head.
In 1981, Cjorli McKendry and four other women claimed they had been sexually harassed while working at Deuel Vocational Institution. In 1985, three women came forward at Folsom State Prison with similar allegations. McKendry was frustrated.
“Here it (is) all over again – another case of sexual harassment and discrimination and (the) same thing was going to happen again,” she told McClatchy News Service in November 1985. “They said they were going to have an immediate investigation. What’s an immediate investigation – 10 years from now?”
The Folsom State Prison female employees claimed male correctional officers “manhandled, cursed and harassed them.”
According to the news report at the time, “women complained the men verbally and physically harassed them. In one case, a woman at the prison in Tracy said she was offered better jobs in exchange for sex.”
For many, sexual harassment in a male-dominated profession came as no surprise.
“Capt. Lynn Cox, who is one of the highest-ranking women in the department as the head of its background investigations unit, said harassment has always been a reality for women in the department,” the news service reported. “She recalled her early days in the profession when she was the first female sergeant to work the night shift at the California Institution for Men in Chino.”
She said it was difficult.
“I look back on those days as the best in my career, but it was awful. These women that were crying about sexual harassment – we didn’t know those words existed,” she said. “I went home every morning crying. It was like being a battered wife all night long.”
In 1974, Sgt. Jo Sordrager went to work at the department. When she made her way to a men’s institution, “the male officers ignored her until she had proven herself. Now, she said, she has no problems,” the news service reported.
The department responded by taking action.
“At the Department of Corrections, officials are trying to address sexual harassment through better training,” the news service reported. “Recently the department held courses for the people who will lead sexual harassment classes at the state’s prisons. It resurrected the Women’s Liaison Council, an organization to address women’s needs. … ‘This director (of corrections) and myself are concerned,’ said (Chief Deputy Director Jim Gomez). ‘We want to increase the representation of women in this department.'”
Director Dan McCarthy said he was unaware the problem was so widespread until the 1985 Folsom Prison allegations.
Read other stories on women in corrections.