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What Women Bring to Corrections

Contrary to what some people think, their presence enhances security and operations.

Expanded Prison
A corrections officer writes in a clip board as she walks past rows of beds.
(AP/Nati Harnik)
"You don't need a bunch of ladies guarding men." Those words, uttered by Louisiana state Rep. Kenny Havard at a recent hearing at the state Capitol, stung me, and I am sure thousands of other women corrections professionals reacted the same way. However, and more importantly, it reminded me that in spite of the progress women have made in corrections, we still have work to do. The irony was not lost on me that such a statement was made in March, during National Women's History month.

As the executive deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and president of the national Association of Women Executives in Corrections (AWEC), I am shocked by the commenter's inaccurate perception of women in the corrections field. AWEC and most of our male counterparts, who are true professionals, recognize, value and appreciate what women bring to the table. We firmly believe that the presence of women enhances the safety, operations, communication and security within corrections' organizational culture and that the field is strengthened by women and men working together within the professional norms of our society and culture.

How can it be that in 2018 we still have lawmakers so ill-informed about the growing role that women play in the field of criminal justice? In Pennsylvania, 25 percent of our corrections staff, 29 percent of our managers and 40 percent of our superintendents are female, and Gov. Tom Wolf, like many of his counterparts in other states, is working to increase those numbers. There's plenty of agreement, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, that it should be your ability, not your anatomy, that determines your destiny.

How could it be that we are still expected by some only to take "women's" jobs or to believe that there is no place for women in a corrections setting, or that the only reason corrections wages should be raised is to attract more men and push out female staff, as Rep. Havard advocates? There's a better reason to raise wages: to recognize that corrections is as much a part of maintaining public safety as any law-enforcement agency.

Pay equity is needed for women, who continue to demonstrate the value of their leadership in the corrections field not only by their ideas but also by their ability to deal more effectively with potentially violent situations. To someone who says they would rather have men respond to a prison fight than women, my response is this: If you had women working in that situation you may not have had a fight in the first place, because women are generally more skilled at de-escalating tensions before they boil over.

Indeed, research has shown that women working behind the fence have a positive impact on reducing violence in prison. It's time for non-believers to wake up. What a slap in the face to all of the women who serve as corrections officers, non-uniform staff, prison superintendents and department administrators, and especially to the women who have lost their lives in the line of duty to serve and protect the public.

We would do well to acknowledge that there are no gender lines when we all serve in support of a common mission. So, thank you, Rep. Havard, for reminding us that we still have work to do. I suggest you spend a day inside a prison with one of your brave public servants protecting the citizens of Louisiana -- and make it a female.

Executive deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and president of the Association of Women Executives in Corrections
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