Women in Corrections: Are You Tough Enough?
Maybe you have been told corrections is a man’s world. Maybe you think female correctional officers are easily toyed with and manipulated by inmates. Maybe you even convinced yourself that you’re not big or strong enough to hack it in a jail, prison or juvenile detention facility.
Stop right there.
If all of the above were true, why would the number of women using criminal justice degrees to become correctional officers (COs) be increasing?
“Over the last 20 years, the number of females working in corrections has increased at all levels, from line staff to top-level administrators,” says Ron Solheid, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. “I would strongly encourage students interested in a corrections career to explore their options and the associated requirements for the many positions available.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an additional 26,000 new corrections jobs will become available between now and 2020. Regarding women specifically, Washington College of Law professor Brenda K. Smith cites some encouraging facts regarding the development of the field in her 2012 article Uncomfortable Places, Close Spaces: Female Correctional Workers’ Sexual Interactions With Men and Boys in Custody:
- In 2001, women made up 24.5 percent of all COs in male facilities
- By 2007, women comprised 40 percent of COs in male and female facility
- In 2008, women comprised 42 percent of staff in juvenile facilities
The same trend is evident when the conversation switches to women in charge of correctional facilities. As early as 2005, women made up 23 percent of the nation’s prison warden and superintendents and 32 percent of juvenile facility administrators.
So, it is clear women make up a significant percentage of the corrections workforce – and their numbers are increasing.
Still don’t think you are physically or emotionally cut out for a job in corrections? Think again.
Which comes first, brains or brawn?
If you’re a woman who happens to be slight in stature, unsure if the corrections field is right for you, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
“Mental toughness is much more important than physical toughness,” says Katie Funfsinn, a CO at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee. “[As a CO] you’re the person in authority. Whether you’re 5-foot-nothing or 6’2”, [offenders] have to listen to you.”
Funfsinn also says that offenders – whether they’re men or women – will figure out a myriad of ways to deceive, taunt or torment COs to get under their skin or get what they want. Such psychological trickery requires a solid mental makeup, she adds.
But mental toughness is not just a no-fear attitude and keeping a stiff upper lip, explains Dr. Caterina Spinaris Tudor, a psychotherapist and executive director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.
Mental toughness also includes the ability to understand how to handle emotions like fear, sadness, anger and shame amidst the “gruesomeness and mayhem” of being a CO, Spinaris Tudor writes on her blog Safety & Sanity.
In her blog post Hazmat Suit for the Soul, Spinaris Tudor says COs are sometimes put in situations that make war zones pale by comparison. To deal with the negative effects of such experiences, she says, COs need to lean on their social support network and their own psychological strength.
So, what’s the verdict? Are you tough enough to be a CO?
If you possess an adventurous spirit to deal with a sometimes chaotic work environment; a thick skin to handle the taunts and torments from all manner of offenders; and the mental wherewithal to cope with the natural range of emotions you’ll feel, the answer is likely “Yes.”
If you decide to get into the field, just keep in mind that the education and experience needed to work for a state-run department of corrections varies – some states require only a clean background and a high school diploma.
But the requirements necessary to work in a federal facility are more stringent – often including a Bachelor’s degree and up to three years experience.