Unlocking History

First female Correctional Officers opened career doors in California prisons

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Historical photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer

Prior to the 1970s, women working in corrections were limited to desks, phones, filing and typing. Today, thousands of women fill the ranks of custody staff at every level. Female Correctional Officers have promoted to wardens and other executive level positions. CDCR offers exceptional opportunities for women to join its custody staff.

When the California state prison system started during the Gold Rush, there was one floating institution – the Waban, a rickety ship anchored off the coast north of San Francisco.

Going ashore during the day, the prison ship inmates constructed the first physical state penal institution at San Quentin.

The original guards were male and it would take more than a century for the first females to take up duties as Correctional Officers. Those women blazed the way for others to follow.

The early female Correctional Officers said they faced hostile working environments not only from the inmates, but sometimes also from their male counterparts. As many of those females said in interviews, they believed they had to prove themselves by working twice as hard.

Some officers and executive staff offered support as the department went through the same changes as the rest of society.

Technically, there were female guards at San Quentin (SQ) almost since the beginning of the institution. They were used to supervise the female inmates originally housed at SQ before they were transferred to Tehachapi in 1932. However, back then they were not used to supervise the male inmate population.

Some of the first female correctional officers

Dorothy “Dolly” Taylor

According to the San Quentin Alumni group, the first modern female Correctional Officer was a clerk who found herself promoted to the rank of officer to supervise a female condemned inmate.

While waiting on Death Row at San Quentin, Barbara “Bloody Babs” Graham needed to be supervised by a female Correctional Officer.

“If you want to go way back, Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Taylor was the first CO at San Quentin. She was clerical when Barbara Graham arrived at SQ death row from California Institution for Women in 1955,” according to Dick Nelson, retired SQ associate warden. “Dolly was promoted to CO to babysit her. I believe Graham was there for six weeks before she was executed as she did get at least one stay. … After the execution Dorothy demoted back to a clerical position and worked the mail room for many years. She was again promoted to CO in the 1970s and retired as a CO.”

On June 3, 1955, Graham became the third female inmate to be executed in the gas chamber. Her trial sparked media interest and the 1958 movie “I Want to Live” starring Susan Hayward. The role earned Hayward an Oscar.

Graham was convicted of the 1953 murder of 64-year-old Mabel Monahan. She and two accomplices were in search of a rumored stash of money in the woman’s home. They found nothing of value. The two male accomplices were also executed.

The first woman executed was Juanita “The Duchess” Spinelli in November 1941. The second was Louise Peete in April 1947.

Linda Clarke

In 1971, Linda Clarke was 26 years old when she became the first female officer to work at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, according to CTF Associate Warden Jeff Soares in his book, “History of Soledad.”

Woman sitting in office with California state flag behind her.
Linda Clarke.

According to Soares, she was not given the title of Correctional Officer but was classified, as all the other women in her position, as “Women Correctional Supervisors,” for which there were several levels.

“There was significant discrimination against all the women and they were often told they would not be given any promotion when they had applied, because they were women,” Soares writes.

Clarke recounted how it was tough at first and promotions weren’t in the cards.

“According to Clarke, when she had put in for a promotion, she was told to wait in a room to be called for her interview. She waited the entire day before someone came back and told her the interviews were over,” Soares writes.

Clarke worked as a Correctional Officer from 1971 until 1978. From 1981 to 1987, she returned to CTF as a training manager.

Gov. Pete Wilson appointed her as CTF’s first female warden in March 1995. There were 10 other female wardens serving in the state at the time, according to Soares.

“The staff, I think, was very pleased to welcome back one of their own. I think they’re very proud of that. It will be even more of a challenge not to disappoint them,” Warden Clarke told the Salinas Californian at the time.

Karon Larson

According to the Old Guard Foundation, a group of retired Correctional employees, Karon Larson and three others were the “first female officers assigned to a California men’s prison” in 1972 at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad.

In 1962, she began her career with the department as a clerk typist. In 1971, she became a Correctional Supervisor at the California Institution for Women.

In 1981 she transferred to San Quentin, where she worked the Security Housing Units and Condemned Row. In 1984, she transferred to Folsom State Prison, working in the SHU, Appeals and General Population.

She retired in 1996 with more than 32 years at the department.

Ilene Williams

A July 28, 1972, issue of San Quentin News described Williams as if she were a model instead of a Correctional Officer. The paper wrote Williams is “an attractive 30 (who) likes horseback riding, tennis and reading.”

Ilene Williams said she helped design the original female uniform in 1972.

The newspaper also asked why Williams chose to become a Correctional Officer at San Quentin.

“That it was a challenge,” she said. By 1972, Williams had already been working for the department for five years, most recently as a Correctional Counselor at California Rehabilitation Center.

According to a letter by Williams, her career began in 1967.

“I interviewed at San Quentin Prison in the early part of 1970 … and I was selected to get the job. Shortly after I interviewed at Quentin, the George Jackson riot … occurred. The plan to bring females into San Quentin as Correctional Officers was delayed for one year. This is why no females were placed at San Quentin until 1972,” she explained in a letter dated Sept. 2, 2004. “If the two of us (along with fellow female Correctional Officer Joyce Zink) had failed, it may have been years before women would have the same upward mobility in the (department) as men.”

Williams also acknowledged there is a lot of confusion surrounding the issue of the first female Correctional Officers. In her letter, she wrote, “It was not a matter of women being barred from working at San Quentin. (The prison) hired Correctional Officers, we were (known as) Women Correctional Supervisors I, II and III, which were designated positions for female institutions, not male prisons.”

Her letter indicates San Quentin was a test case.

“For females, it meant they would be assigned to San Quentin only and in SQ Visiting Program only for this new venture had to be evaluated, not only by SQ and Headquarters, but by the community as well,” she wrote.

Williams said at the time there were no females who wore a uniform in a male prison or institution. So, she helped design the first female uniforms and became the first female CO to wear one.

“We wore regular clothes until we got the uniforms,” she wrote.

A year after starting at San Quentin, she transferred to California Institution for Women at Frontera as a Correctional Sergeant.

Over the years, Williams worked her way up the ranks at the department. She was a Lieutenant, Night Watch Commander and a Correctional Counselor at the California Institution for Men at Chino, as well as doing a stint at the Headquarters office in Sacramento. She ended her career with the department as the Chief Deputy Warden at California State Prison, Corcoran, retiring in 1994.

In 1991, Director of Corrections James Gomez recognized her trailblazing efforts.

“You had the distinction of being one of the first women Correctional Officers in a men’s prison (San Quentin),” he wrote. “You paved the way for other women employees in the department.”

Joyce Zink

Alongside Ilene Williams, Joyce Zink was among the first female Correctional Officers at San Quentin in 1972.

Zink started her career the year before at the California Institution for Women and transferred to San Quentin, where she worked in the visiting room. She said she felt isolated in the position and thought a more challenging post might be had at Folsom.

“She transferred to the visiting room there in 1973, once again as the first woman to hold such a position,” according to an article in Correction News, published in 2002. “The reception she got wasn’t so warm.”

Zink recalled being ignored when she offered morning greetings to her fellow officers. She was later transferred to a gun tower far from the main yard.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be overnight that I got to go inside (inmate housing),” she said in the article.

Eventually she was given a position in the largest housing unit.

“I thought, ‘Oh good, I actually get to go inside,’” she said.

In 1976, she was promoted to Sergeant, transferring to the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad and later to the California Institution for Men. In the 1980s, she rose to the rank of Lieutenant and later to Captain, after transferring back to Folsom following brief stints at Headquarters and San Quentin.

During her career she served as a Program Administrator for the administrative segregation unit at California State Prison, Sacramento, and ran housing units at Folsom State Prison and CSP-Sacramento. She retired as a Captain from Folsom State Prison in 2000.

“I always wanted to do something that’s a little bit different, not to be a rebel, but do something that would make a difference in society,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to make a name for myself. I was more adventurous, I guess.”

Two correctional officers work at a desk.
San Quentin Correctional Officer Wilma Schneider. (CDCR file photo.)

Wilma Schneider

Wilma Schneider was hired in 1973 and newspapers around the world picked up the story.

In 1973, the Associated Press published a photo of Schneider holding a rifle while standing on the walls of San Quentin. Today, she is known as Wendy Woods.

In March 1973, the Associated Press (AP) penned a piece on Schneider, declaring her the “first woman on San Quentin’s correctional officer staff in the … history of the prison.”

“I can’t help but think that if I don’t succeed, I’m going to ruin it for all women,” Schneider told the AP.

Displaying the stereotypes women faced as they took “male” jobs, the AP article described her as “slim” and “attractive.” Schneider started working at San Quentin after three years of experience as a group supervisor at the California Youth Authority’s Los Guilucos School for Boys and Girls.

Associate Warden James Park said she would be expected to perform all the duties of her male counterparts.

“She qualified as a Correctional Officer. That means she will be expected to handle all the assignments a male officer does, including gun tower and gun rail duty and cell block supervision,” he told the AP.

Schneider met resistance from other officers, inmates and media outlets.

“The men’s advisory council, a group of elected convicts responsible for investigating inmate complaints, is organizing a petition against women officers, with privacy the main complaint,” the AP reported.

According to a March 28, 1973, United Press International (UPI) news report, inmate Larrance Hand complained “in a U.S. District Court action that the women (Schneider and fellow female Correctional Officer Bonnie Briggs) made him feel romantic but prison rules barred him from showing this emotion.”

He called their presence “cruel and unusual punishment” and asked for $1.99 in damages and for the women to be fired.

According to a Nov. 2, 1973, issue of San Rafael’s Daily Independent Journal, a judge tossed out Hand’s lawsuit.

Schneider also received public criticism. An editorial in the March 3, 1973, edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle referred to her employment at San Quentin as a joke.

“Whoever assigned Wilma Schneider to her present job ought to be kidding, but apparently he isn’t,” the paper wrote. “At the risk of being termed chauvinistic by Mrs. Schneider’s more militant sisters, it seems appropriate to observe once again there are some jobs for which women just are not suited. This has to be one. … Considering the kind of clientele San Q has and the fact that Mrs. Schneider is attractive, her very presence on the walls is likely to contribute to the foment that always is just under the surface. Prisons never lack for problems. This one San Quentin hardly needs, even in homage to equal rights.”

She left the job in 1975. Wilma Schneider, who today is known as Wendy Woods, authored a book chronicling her experiences at San Quentin.

Marie Brooks

In 1973, Marie Brooks became the first female Correctional Officer at the California Medical Facility, according to the Vacaville Reporter.

“She was straight-up business,” said fellow Officer Joyce Thompson in a 2005 Vacaville Reporter article. Thompson started in 1978 and trained under Brooks. “She handled inmates like you tied your shoes.”

Thompson said it was difficult for Brooks.

“First, she was a woman, and she was a black woman,” Thompson said. “They were not happy she was here. Male officers believed a prison was no place for a woman.”

According to Theresa Brooks, Marie’s daughter, the first academy for female correctional officers to graduate from the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad (April 30, 1973-June 1, 1973) included Lillian Bledsoe, Marie Brooks, Geraldine Copeland, Betty Gosston, Leslie B. Johnson, Dorothy Killian, Trella F. Robertson and Catherine Seward.

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