After jail scandal, spotlight on growing role of women officers

Two-thirds of corrections officers are female at some facilities

  • Corrections Officer Gail Watts is the only female captain at Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson.
Corrections Officer Gail Watts is the only female captain at… (Kim Hairston / Baltimore…)
June 15, 2013|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

The 19-year-old felt sick to her stomach when she stepped into the Baltimore prison once nicknamed "Supermax" for her first day of work as a corrections officer. The place was dark and dingy, and she had never been around so many men before.

When Ashley Riley finished her shift that day, she told her mother she'd never go back. But she did, and for nearly a decade the job has offered her a steady paycheck and good benefits.

Women like Riley account for almost two-thirds of the corrections officers at some Maryland institutions, a proportion that illustrates how heavily the system has come to depend on them. And they have been in the spotlight recently, after federal authorities charged 13 female officers in an alleged corruption scheme at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Tavon White, a leader with the Black Guerrilla Family gang, impregnated four correctional officers, according to federal indictments. Investigators say White — who has pleaded not guilty to the charges — and other gang members targeted female officers to aid in a smuggling scheme.

Riley and other women who have built careers in the field acknowledge the challenges in handling male inmates. But they say the problems outlined by federal prosecutors belie the way they handle a dangerous job. It takes mental toughness and an armor of self-respect, they say. They work with men who are angry, mentally ill. Some can't read or write. Many excel at manipulating people.

"They call you a bitch," said Schantel Lyons, a 36-year-old officer who works at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore. "They call you a fat [expletive]. Some of them really get under your skin, but you've got to keep your composure."

In only a few decades since a Supreme Court decision helped pave the way for women to work with male inmates, women have made more strides in the corrections field than they have in other male-dominated professions such as police work.

"It's an everyday challenge, but it's not something that can't be conquered," said Riley, who now works at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center, a correctional facility in Baltimore. "It's a job, and somebody has to do it, male or female."

Relationships with inmates

Lyons and Riley are reluctant to speculate on why some of their colleagues might have become involved with inmates. But Riley described jails as places where inmates are "master manipulators."

"Their job is to manipulate, scheme, be con artists," the 27-year-old said.

And inmates have nothing but time on their hands as they calculate which officers might help them, said Gail Watts, the only female captain at the Baltimore County Detention Center. "They constantly watch your behaviors."

They study body language, the way an officer sits at her post. Does she pull out her lip gloss, fix her hair? The county officers are only allowed to wear studs in their ears, but an inmate will home in on details of an officer's appearance — such as whether one officer's ear studs are bigger or flashier than the others'.

If an inmate senses that he can get away with it, he might try to call an officer by her first name — or even "baby," Watts said.

In the Black Guerrilla Family case, court filings state that gang members targeted female correctional officers with "low self-esteem, insecurities and certain physical attributes," following advice laid out in a gang manual.

Some of the officers in the case have pleaded not guilty, and others have not yet entered pleas.

Lyons said some officers may be "in situations they've never been in before." She added, "They make too many quick decisions, and then at the end, it turns out bad."

Brenda Smith, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, said people should not rule out the possibility that correctional officers pursued relationships with the inmates.

"We as a society are just not comfortable about thinking about women as independent sexual actors who would or could pursue a relationship," especially with someone in custody, said Smith, who is director of the Project on Addressing Prison Rape and has researched female officers' sexual interactions with men and boys in custody.

White "clearly was very smart and entrepreneurial," she said. "Obviously he had power and influence, both in the institution and outside. And he was able to do things for them that nobody had ever done before."

According to investigators, White bought one officer a diamond ring and let some drive luxury cars purchased with money from selling contraband.

A 2008-2009 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that most perpetrators of prison and jail staff sexual misconduct were female, a revelation that surprised many people.

"The typical movie version or the TV version has some predatory male officer sexually assaulting a female inmate," said Martin Horn, former commissioner of corrections in New York City and former secretary of corrections for Pennsylvania.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.