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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Change of the Guard in Corrections Department

28guardsspanIn her 19 years as a corrections officer on Rikers Island, Barbara Williams has been trapped in a mess hall with rioting inmates and thrown against an iron gate by a man twice her size who left her with a fractured shoulder. But nothing makes her wince like remembering the time an inmate commented on the way her hips swayed ever so slightly beneath her boxy blue uniform, back when she first came on the job.

“He said: ‘Damn! You remind me of a pantyhose commercial,’ ” recalled Ms. Williams, who is in her late 40s and has a compact build and a deep, raspy voice. “The feeling I had all that day was as if he had touched me or something.”

She spoke of the episode one recent afternoon at Horizon Academy, a high school for male inmates that is in the George Motchan Detention Center, one of eight jails on the island holding inmates awaiting trial. Ms. Williams cited the man’s comment as a crucial moment in her career.

“I saw right off that I have to change my demeanor: I have to be more forceful; I have to harden myself,” said Ms. Williams, a single mother of two grown daughters. That very night, she went back to her apartment in Jamaica, Queens, and practiced stiffening her walk in front of a mirror.

“It’s like I tell my daughters: In life, you have to know when to be a woman and when to be a lady,” she said. “I don’t feel that ladies belong in jail. So, that softer part of me, I try to leave outside. I walk in here, and I try to be 110 percent woman.”

Women have worked in the city’s Department of Correction for decades, but never in such large numbers as they do today. Women make up 45 percent of about 9,300 uniformed employees of the department, according to the agency. From guards to wardens to the four-star chief, Carolyn Thomas, they fill almost every rank. And in many respects, they are changing the culture of the city’s jails.

Walk down the corridors of any of the city’s 11 active jails, and it is clear that not only are there a high number of female officers, but a majority of those women — 75 percent — are black, said Stephen Morello, a department spokesman. They are former soldiers, beauticians and bank tellers. They are single mothers who took the job to support their children. They are grandmothers like Angela Crim (“Crime without the ‘E,’ ” she says sweetly), who carries handwritten Scripture in her purse and says she tries not to judge the men whom she guards.

Some of the women are natural caretakers who dispense wisdom to inmates along with bars of lye soap. Others are hard-nosed disciplinarians. But all the women have one thing in common: They are taking their place in a world traditionally dominated by men.

Nowhere is their sense of sorority more evident than in the women’s locker room, where pictures of Barack Obama and male models with rippling torsos provide a little relief after a long shift, and jars of hair products like Queen Helene Styling Gel clutter the sink counters.

Upward Bound

Ask any woman in the city’s Correction Department why she wanted a job that brings with it such stress and potential danger, and she’ll tell you that it’s the security. Such a career, in which no college degree is required and the top yearly pay for an officer is $75,000, can mean the difference between a life of hardship and a ticket into the middle class.

“I don’t think anybody grows up saying, ‘I want to be in charge of inmates,’ ” said Chantay Forbes, a 30-year-old single mother from East New York, Brooklyn, who took the corrections officer’s exam about a decade ago when she was pregnant with her son. She recently bought a house upstate.

“All I saw was what it could do for my future,” added Ms. Forbes, a newly promoted captain. “If it wasn’t for this job, I might not be able to own a home right now.”

Several factors explain the rising number of women entering the city’s Correction Department. One is the 1977 United States Supreme Court decision in Dothard v. Rawlinson, a watershed sex discrimination case that helped opened doors for women in law enforcement.

Another is the fact that in the mid-’80s, the agency’s third female commissioner, Jacqueline McMickens, began assigning female guards to all-male jails that were once off limits to them. More recently, academic experts suggest, labor shortages and an overhaul of the welfare system have driven more women into the field.

But nothing beats word of mouth. Over the years, mothers and daughters, sisters and girlfriends have recruited one another. One recruit, Suzeth Orr, a hairdresser who used to work at a salon in Downtown Brooklyn, learned about the job from two clients who worked for the department. “They said it’s not a hard job,” she said. “It’s actually safe.”

Statistics bear that out. Last year was the safest on record for the city’s jails, according to the department, and many female corrections officers think that the decrease in violence is linked in part to their presence.

“The female touch is a little more gentle,” said Joandrea Davis, a warden who runs a jail for sentenced male inmates on Rikers and keeps her office stocked with bottles of Perrier and candy-apple-scented hand lotion. “You don’t have that machismo that comes into confrontational situations, and sometimes we’re able to quell things.”

But not all the time. “It is a jail,” she added. “We’re not dealing with choirboys here.”

It’s impossible to quantify the exact impact women have had on the city’s jails. But the system has seen changes.

Read full article here. [Brooks Holland]

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