Women Break Into Some of the Toughest Men's Prisons


Walk into the maximum-security Bronx House of Detention and the first thing that strikes you is not the line of burly, tattooed murderers, thieves, and gang members chained together by the ankles, haltingly making their way down the hall. It's the prison bars: They are painted peach.

"These are my colors," says Warden Elizabeth Heard, noting that such a simple thing affects people's moods, and thus, can be an effective management tool.

Warden Heard is part of a small group of women pioneers who have quietly crashed the barriers of one of the last male bastions in American society: They are the first women wardens of prisons for men. Over the past two decades, they've worked to change the American correctional system, bringing subtle but effective improvements. But it hasn't been easy.

"The two things these women say they've needed the most are perseverance and a sense of humor," says Joanne Morton, professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, who has just completed a survey of women wardens across the country.

Their number is still small. The women represent 10 percent of wardens and superintendents of the 900 statewide correctional facilities for men. Most came into the correctional system after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act passed in 1972, requiring states to allow women to work in men's correctional facilities.

"You have to be terribly strong, not just to deal with the offender population, but also to deal with the negative attitudes of the employees," says Tekla Dennison Miller, a former warden and author of "The Warden Wore Pink." "Many people say it's changed, but it's still there."

Indeed, almost all of the women who've worked their way up through the ranks say they've had to cope with open hostility at some point or another.

"When I first came here, the biggest statement was, 'What good are you? You can't help us restrain an inmate?' " says Heard, sitting in her office surrounded by pictures of her daughter and grandchildren.

But many women wardens believe they bring different coping skills to their jobs.

Ms. Miller, who has retired from running a prison in Michigan, remembers one of the first things she did as warden was to transform the special units set up to handle prisoner disturbances. They were known as "goon squads" and consisted of the biggest, meanest, toughest-looking male guards. Miller assigned some women to the squads and put the emphasis on mediation and crisis intervention, rather than confrontation.

"I think women use more communication skills other than the physical skills," says Melody Turner, president of the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents. "That's because most of the time they don't have as much strength."

A warden's tale

Raised in the projects in Atlanta, Elizabeth Heard moved to New York as a single mother. She got a job at a juvenile-detention center, although she now admits she was so young that she lied about her age to qualify.

From there, she became a corrections guard and was regularly promoted. Finally, she was urged to take the captain's test. She did, not because she wanted to climb the career ladder, but because of the prospect that no captain could ever again tell her what to do.

"When you're a rebel, you've got to know every rule and regulation in the book," says Heard, who passed the test with flying colors. Her reward: She became the first sanitation captain, and in that role, streamlined and standardized the entire New York City Department of Corrections purchasing process, saving the city millions of dollars annually. She also designed a centralized system that can track any inmate, anywhere in the system, anytime.

Heard was fortunate to have a female mentor a step ahead of her, who taught her never to dwell on discrimination.

"Certain things happened which made me think that if I were a man, they wouldn't have happened," says Heard. "But you go home, think about it, talk it out, cry it out, then you go on, because if you don't, you might as well quit."

While Heard refused to give bias a second thought, she and others recognize the different strengths women wardens bring to their jobs.

"They tend to be reform-oriented," Professor Morton says of the women. "They all talk about changes they've made to make things better for their staff and to find additional programming for the inmates." That has historically been the role women played in the criminal-justice system, she notes, although they rarely had the authority to implement their ideas.

Vive la diffrence

As they've taken up leadership roles, that's changed.

The Rev. Jannie Poullard was the first woman warden of the city's Brooklyn House of Detention and the J.A. Thomas Center on Riker's Island. In the mid 1980s, as the prison began to admit inmates who were diagnosed with AIDS, no special services existed to cope with those prisoners' unique needs. Ms. Poullard read all the literature she could find and contacted AIDS advocacy groups. She then designed a special AIDS unit, complete with a battalion of regular volunteers. It was replicated around New York and the country.

About the same time in Michigan, Miller started a unit for prisoners who routinely practiced self-mutilation. She brought in a team of psychiatrists and designed a program aimed at stopping such behavior. It, too, was so successful that it became a model for prisons around the country.

To Pam Withrow, warden of the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Mich., the challenge is to create a humane prison system that encourages mature, responsible behavior by inmates. "Most of our prisoners have been punished during most of their lives, and that didn't make them better human beings," she says.

At the London Correctional Facility in London, Ohio, where Ms. Turner is the warden, the dorms with more women correctional officers tend to be quieter and cleaner. Others say the women's presence changes the overall atmosphere.

"Women are nurturing, which means educating, bringing a calming effect to the institution rather than a confrontational one," says Miller. "I think most women don't talk down to staff or prisoners, which brings a lot better result."

Most women wardens insist their ways are not necessarily better, just different. But as such, they enhance the management of the prison system. That's a sentiment shared by many of their male colleagues. Still, for many women, such respect was grudgingly won.

In 1975, Michigan's Warden Withrow was a welfare mother who developed a "burning desire" to become a police officer because federal funds were available to pay for college.

"I was told I was too bright and too idealistic to be in this business," she says. "I later learned that was code for 'too female.' "

So she talked her way into a job in the correctional system, arguing that the welfare agency would pay her first six months' salary. She took a civil-service test on a Saturday and started on a Sunday. Two years later, she was running a reformatory camp. Within 6-1/2 years, she was a warden.

"The first day on the job, this 6-foot, 2-inch sergeant looks down at me and says, 'I'll give you 110 percent until you hang yourself. Then I want to pull the trap door,'" says Withrow, who now chuckles at the memory.

Comments like that were common and painful, she says, but the hardest part was the loneliness. She eventually found a solace with four other women corrections officials who got together regularly.

"We made a pact, we nursed each other, we laughed, and cried and talked, we networked," says Withrow. "I will be forever grateful to them. I don't think I would have survived without them."

Similar small groups were forming around the country, and they eventually grew into an informal, national network of women professionals. That network, in itself, made a huge impact on the correctional system.

Several wardens described professional meetings early in their careers as "smoky, raucous affairs" where the women were barely tolerated. "Every other word was a profanity, but in our presence they felt like they had to put on their table manners - they couldn't be themselves," says Poullard. "It caused somewhat of a gap."

But with Turner and other women in leadership roles nationally, things now are different. "It's like night and day. When we come together now, it's as peers, to share information," says Withrow.

Women still on the proving ground

But Poullard, who retired from corrections to work in at-risk communities, says women still are held to a higher standard and still must work harder to gain the same recognition.

"If they're males, it's automatically assumed they're responsible, in charge, and can manage males or females," says Poullard. "A woman, on the other hand, no matter how qualified she is, always has to prove she can do the job equally as well."

Poullard left a long list of accomplishments at Riker's Island. But she also left behind a court order that requires New York City to ensure women are advancing equally with men through the ranks.

All the women wardens say they're dedicated to mentoring and to helping younger women through the system.

"There may be biases and negative perceptions at first," says Turner. "But once you get in and start the job, you're either a good warden or a bad warden. It's that simple."

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