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 fat (expletive),” said Schantel Lyons, a 36-year-old officer who works at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore. “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.”
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.
This year, a U.S. Department of Justice study found that the Baltimore City Detention Center had the nation’s second-highest rate of sexual contact between staff and inmates, with nearly 7 percent of inmates reporting it.
Smith said the officers in Baltimore may have seen the inmates as available partners, in part because of the disproportionate incarceration rates for African-American men.
“In the community, there’s a scarcity of partners, a scarcity of men and an abundance of women, which diminishes (women’s) opportunities to have partners,” Smith said. “In an institutional setting, the reverse is true.”
Some women may form relationships with inmates out of concern for their own safety, Horn said.
“If they can form an alliance with a powerful inmate, that inmate can protect them from other inmates,” he said. “And that is made worse in the current fiscal situation, where there is inadequate training and staffing. ... It was never sufficient, and now it’s even worse.”
Riley and Lyons say the job takes an emotional strength, often formed at home.
“As a woman, you have to respect yourself,” Riley said. “You have to have morals and values.”
Maryland should examine training and staffing levels at jails, as well as the workplace culture, experts say. Often, female correctional officers “will say, ‘I was treated better by the inmate than I was by my co-workers,’” Smith said.
Standards stemming from the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 — a law spurred largely by a report by the organization Human Rights Watch on male prisoner rape — lay out a blueprint to prevent sexual abuse, Smith said. For instance, they address limits on cross-gender searching and supervision of inmates, staffing ratios and training.
As the scandal unfolded at Baltimore’s state-run jail, the issue of women working with male prisoners drew widespread attention.
The website Slate ran a piece called “Should There Be Female Guards in Men’s Prisons?” An article on Rolling Out, a news and entertainment website, asked readers, “Should females be allowed to work as guards in male prisons, or is this a rare case that will likely never happen again?”
The gender issue
Delegate Curt Anderson, chairman of the Baltimore City House delegation, said allegations in the federal indictments speak to issues of honesty and integrity, and background screenings — not to gender.
But Anderson, a Democrat and longtime member of the House Judiciary Committee, also said that the assignment of officers to inmates of the opposite sex raises questions about safety, prisoner privacy and sexual relationships.
“I would rather not have women working at men’s facilities, and certainly not having men working in women’s facilities,” he said. “If you put a man and a woman together on a prolonged basis, you’re asking for problems.”
Riley calls the notion that women shouldn’t work with male prisoners “ludicrous.”
“Are you saying I’m incompetent?” she asked.
Smith pointed out that men are incarcerated at far higher rates than women. “Because 93 percent of the people in custody are male, if you precluded women from working with men, then you are going to really limit their employment opportunities in this profession,” she said.
State corrections officials say the indicted officers’ alleged behavior should not reflect on the majority of women in the profession.
“Bottom line, this isn’t an issue of gender, it’s an issue of integrity,” state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Rick Binetti said in a statement.
The city jail’s security director, Shavella Miles, lost her job in the aftermath of the scandal. State corrections officials have not discussed the move in detail but said the security director failed a polygraph test.
FBI agents wrote in a court filing that some corrections supervisors had given gang members latitude for their activities in exchange for a reduction in violence at the jail.
But Miles has not been charged with any crime or even mentioned in the indictments. Her lawyer has said she’s being made a scapegoat in the case.
A job, an opportunity
Despite the challenges, women continue to be drawn to the corrections field.
About a decade ago, Lyons was a single mother of two and had an administrative office job that offered no benefits. She wanted something better for her children, so she applied for a job in corrections.
She saw an opportunity for security and good benefits. “The jail’s going to keep running, and they’re going to still need people to work,” she said.
For some women, the corrections field offers better opportunities than they can find elsewhere, said Smith. Most female correctional officers are single, and many are women of color, especially in urban areas that have a large minority population.
“I don’t think anybody wakes up and says, ‘I want to be a correctional officer,’” said Smith, “I think people take them because they are government jobs, they have good benefits, and they have job security.”
The nationwide median salary for a correctional officer is about $39,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
A changing atmosphere
When Bruce Flanigan, a major at the county detention center, started his career in 1979, he worked with only five women.
He was in his early 20s and noticed that many of the older male officers resented their female colleagues. They viewed them as intruders on male turf — and doubted they had the strength or skills to help if something went wrong.
“They looked down on the females working in corrections,” Flanigan said.
Today, men and women “work as a team,” he said. “It’s a big difference from when I first started.”
Deborah Richardson, a county corrections director, said women still have a long way to go in filling administrative positions in the corrections field. But in the decades since she started her first job, the biggest change has been in the attitudes of male colleagues.
She recalled an incident where she was on patrol with a male partner. A fight broke out in the prison yard, and they were the first to respond.
“When it was over, he told me how surprised he was that I ran to the yard,” she recalled.
The remark puzzled her — and has stuck with her ever since.
“It’s my job,” she told him.