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Prisons: Correctional Officers - Changes In C.o. Workforce Demographics

women male minority inmates

In the 1970s, correctional managers recognized four fundamental challenges: high staff turnover; the growing lack of white applicants in the job pool; the lack of treatment-oriented officers; and minority inmate demands that the correctional work force be diversified (Philliber). The response to these challenges was a concerted effort to increase the number of women and minorities in corrections. The presence of female correctional officers in the men's prison was desired because they were seen as bringing a "normalizing" influence into prison. This perception was based on the assumption that women would rely more extensively on listening and communication skills than male C.O.s and develop personal relationships with inmates that could be used as a "technique of control" (Pollock, p. 111). Minority officers were sought because of a belief that minority inmates would be more amenable to rehabilitation if they were supervised by minority officers who could serve as role models. Minorities were viewed as constituting a more sympathetic work force with which minority inmates could identify (Jacobs and Kraft). The result was the creation of aggressive affirmative action programs.

Prior to the early 1970s, women in corrections worked as matrons in the women's prison or as clerical staff in the men's prisons. They were not hired as C.O.s in men's prisons because of male fears that women lack physical strength; are too easily corrupted by inmates; can not provide appropriate back-up in emergency situations; have a vulnerability to assault that jeopardizes facility security; are a disruptive influence because inmates will not obey them or will fight for their attention; and violate inmate privacy by being in a position to view inmate personal hygiene activities (Hawkins and Alpert; Alpert and Crouch). Because promotional criteria favored staff with direct supervision of male inmates, employees in clerical or matron roles had little hope of professional advancement (Chapman et al.).

The passage of amendments to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in 1972 extended the prohibition of employment discrimination to government employers. Women used this amendment to file civil suits against correctional managers who would not hire them to work as officers in male prisons. As a result, women are no longer limited to supervising women inmates. In states such as Alabama where one-third of correctional officers are women, 89 percent work in men's prisons. In 1997, 14.8 percent of the Federal Bureau of Prison's new hires for the C.O. workforce were women. At the state level, 25.5 percent of the new hires, on average, were women (Camp and Camp, p. 144).

Thirty years of experience have found that male concerns about the unsuitability of women to be C.O.s in men's prisons are groundless (Walters; Wright and Saylor). Shawver and Dickover and Rowan reported that female officers are assaulted significantly less often than male officers and there is no relationship between the percentage of women officers and the number of assaults against male staff. Simon and Simon found that female C.O.s write approximately the same number of misconduct reports as male C.O.s, for the same types of violations. Jurik and Halemba found one significant difference between male and female officer perceptions of the job. The men wanted more discretion. The women wanted more structure. Both male and female C.O.s tended to believe that the majority of their work-related problems were caused by superiors, although women were more likely to express negative attitudes toward male coworkers and view them as the cause of many of their problems. Fry and Glasner (1987) found that female officers were more negative in their evaluation of inmate services.

However, male officer hostility to the hiring of female C.O.s has been a consistent problem in corrections and women are still a numeric minority in most men's prisons. Their appearance, demeanor, behavior, performance, and mistakes receive a disproportionate amount of attention (Zimmer). In addition, male supervisors often assign female C.O.s to low-risk assignments such as visiting rooms and control rooms, a practice that limits their opportunities for skills development and advancement and further antagonizes male C.O.s who resent working the dangerous jobs while women get the easy jobs (Zimmer; Jurik, 1985).

The decision to recruit minority officers through aggressive affirmative action programs was met with fierce resistance by white officers. Racism was prevalent and many white officers believed that nonwhite, urban C.O.s would be pro-inmate and less trustworthy (Irwin). The fear that minority officers would "go easy" on inmates has not been validated by research. In fact, Jacobs and Kraft found that African American C.O.s were more punitive than whites toward inmates. Klofas and Toch found that minority C.O.s expressed the need for high social distance between officer and inmate.

By the end of 1997, the percentage of minority hires in state departments of corrections was 26.9 percent of the total hired (Camp and Camp, p. 143). However, racism remains a powerful factor in corrections. Philliber notes the tendency of African American C.O.s to quit their jobs more often than whites, primarily because of conflicts with superior officers, and to express higher levels of job dissatisfaction than whites.

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