Corrections, along with the military, is still one of the last remaining male-dominated fields of employment. This is changing, however. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as of May 2021, 28.6 percent of its staff, or 10,914 staff members, were female. While this statistic only accounts for correctional officers working within federal prisons in the United States, it is indicative of the overall national trends. In 2019, there were 56,800 female correctional officers employed by local jails, compared with 127,300 male correctional officers. It has been noted that 25.5 percent of new hires for correctional officers, at the state level, are women. In some states, such as Alabama, one-third of all correctional officers are women, and 89 percent of them work within men’s prisons. We will examine correctional officer careers for women in this guide.
The History of Women Working in Corrections
Before the 1970s, most women who worked in corrections worked either as matrons in women’s prisons or as clerical staff in men’s prisons. At that time, women were not being hired as correctional officers in men’s prisons, for a variety of reasons, mostly fears of men:
- Men feared that women correctional officers would lack physical strength necessary to perform the duties of the job
- Men worried that women correctional officers would be too easily corrupted by male inmates
- Men were afraid that women correctional officers could not provide backup in emergency situations
- Men feared that women correctional officers would be vulnerable to assault
- Men feared that women correctional officers would be a disruptive influence, as male inmates would not obey them or would vie for their attention
- Men feared that women correctional officers would violate the rights of male inmates by being in a position to view the personal, intimate hygiene activities of male inmates
Amendments to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that were passed in 1972, however, made sure that the government could no longer discriminate against women when it comes to employment opportunities. It also stated that female correctional officers were permitted to supervise both male and female inmates, unless the males were going to be nude for a long period of time, or unless women had to come into contact with male genitalia. Women used these amendments to file civil suits against corrections departments who would not hire them to work as correctional officers in male prisons. By 1981, only four state correctional systems were resistant to hiring women. Today, women are regularly being hired to work as correctional officers in male prisons, although they are still underrepresented among the correctional workforce as a whole.
Were the male concerns regarding women working as correctional officers valid? No. In fact, here are some truths about women working in corrections:
- Female correctional officers are assaulted less often than male correctional officers.
- A study from 1980 reported that male inmates did not feel that female correctional officers invaded their privacy and did not resist taking orders from female correctional officers.
- No relationship has been found between the percentage of women correctional officers and the number of assaults against male staff.
- Research conducted in a prison in the southern U.S. showed that male inmates were actually less likely to engage in violence in the presence of female correctional officers.
Women correctional officers tend to be better at communications skills with male inmates than male correctional officers. They have also been seen as more patient, nurturing and empathetic, with male inmates more likely to open up to female corrections officers than to males. Despite all of these facts, male correctional officers have remained hostile to the hiring of female correctional officers, and women are still a minority among corrections staff in most male prisons.
How to Incorporate More Women into Corrections as a Career Field
Women must be made aware of the benefits of working in corrections. Many of the jobs in corrections are higher-paying than other jobs, with good benefits for those with families.
College correctional programs at the certificate and degree levels should also attempt to recruit more female students and let them know of the benefits of working in corrections. As the field is currently wide open for women, opportunities for advancement and leadership should be emphasized. Other opportunities also exist for women within the correctional system, including corrections counselors and case managers, helping inmates transition into life on the outside when their sentences are up. Women should be made aware of these career opportunities as well.
In some correctional facilities, training has also been tailored to the needs of women who are new hires. The National Institute of Corrections and the South Carolina Department of Corrections are two systems that have offered gender-specific training for new corrections officers. This training addresses, among other things, the challenges of working in a male-dominated environment, as well as training provided for both male and female corrections officers that highlights differences in the genders and sexual harassment concerns. It is believed that once the corrections system workforce better represents the gender composition of the population of the U.S., such gender-specific training will be unnecessary.
View more information on correctional officer careers.
Incentives for Women Who Wish to Work as Corrections Officers
Scholarships exist for women who are interested in studying to become correctional officers. Examples include:
- The Maria I. Ramirez Memorial Scholarship at City University of New York – $1600 goes to a female full-time student in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice
- The Susan C. Cranford Memorial Scholarship – $500 goes to a female applicant pursuing a degree in criminal justice or corrections management who is in a two- or four-year college program
- Justice Studies Scholarship, Fort Hays State University, Kansas – amount varies, goes to one male and one female Justice Studies junior
- Women in Federal Law Enforcement Scholarship – $1000 per year to a female majoring in criminal justice at a four-year institution
Once hired, women working in some correctional facilities might receive incentives to help them move up the career ladder. As leadership positions for women in corrections have remained scarce, some correctional systems are offering women incentives, such as paid training, to further their education and qualify for higher-paying jobs.
View more information on correctional officer education.
View more information on correctional officer salaries.
Challenges Women Face as Correctional Officers
Women still face many challenges when working in the correctional system. One of these challenges is sexual harassment. Just as in any workplace, sexual harassment exists in corrections, and the New York Times has reported that women correctional officers often face retaliation for reporting sexual harassment by male co-workers or male inmates.
Women who become well-versed in their prison’s policies and procedures are better equipped to handle harassment from male inmates and co-workers and to effectively nip it in the bud. Immediately reporting such harassment to supervisors and human resources will help to make women correctional officers more confident in their positions and show others that they cannot be manipulated.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, in particular, has made training available to all correctional officers, male and female alike, to help them learn to avoid and better handle sexual harassment. In general, if reported, sexual harassment is not tolerated in correctional facilities, and those who are accused may be transferred to another prison to work.
Other challenges of the job that women must face, along with men, are long shifts. Many prisons schedule correctional officers to work 12-hour shifts. This must be balanced along with a woman’s (or man’s) home life and family responsibilities. Women must also deal with constantly changing duties, having to multitask and wear many hats in their jobs, and keep their emotions in check while doing so. This is a challenge for all correctional officers, not just women.
Additionally, women are less likely to be promoted into supervisory corrections positions than men. With few female role models for women correctional officers to model themselves after, female mentors have been scarce. As more women are hired into leadership positions in corrections, this, too, should change.
Resources for Women Interested in a Career in Corrections
The following resources may be helpful for women who are interested in a career in corrections:
Women Professionals in Corrections: A Growing Asset—This publication by MTC Institute focuses on the value of women working in corrections, with an emphasis on Management & Training Corporation (MTC) staff.
10 Things Female Correctional Officers Should Know– This site provides advice from female correctional officer to those who are starting out in the field or have been working in corrections.