Thousands of women fill the ranks of CDCR custody staff at every level, from officers to wardens and executive leadership. CDCR offers exceptional opportunities for women to join its custody staff but that wasn’t always the case.
After proving themselves in the rank-and-file as Correctional Officers, women set their sights on more ambitious goals in the traditionally male-dominated CDCR – leadership. These are just some of their stories.
Women: From correctional officers to CDCR leadership
In 1980, Ruth Rushen became the first woman and first African American to serve as department director.
Rushen previously worked 18 years for the Los Angeles County Probation Department and did a five-year stint on the California Board of Prison Terms.
“If we want to do something about crime, we’re going to have to (decide) how much responsibility we’re willing to accept,” she told Ebony magazine in June 1981. “There is a lot of money (passing from) the ghetto into the other part of society. Arresting the little pusher in Watts is not going to stop crime. You really have to go to Beverly Hills and find the guy who’s financing it. You certainly know the millions are not in Watts.”
She said being appointed to the director role was a surprise.
“I was the first woman on the parole board, and that was macho enough,” she said.
Rushen also addressed rehabilitation, saying once someone has entered prison, it’s difficult to improve that person. According to Rushen, the root causes should be addressed long before a prison sentence.
“Prison is not the best place to change a man’s behavior. Some men and women change in prison, and some of them, it makes worse. It is not ideal,” she said.
Rushen served until 1982. It took nearly two decades for the next female to serve as director. Teresa Rocha, in 2001, was named acting director, serving less than a year.
In 1978, Jeanne Woodford started her prison career as a Correctional Officer at San Quentin.
“You had to be smart enough to be scared a little,” she told the Chicago Tribune, Nov. 29, 2000. “You had to pay attention to your surroundings and have that sixth sense.”
In 1999, she became the first woman to run the prison.
“After five years as a (correctional officer), Woodford then was a counselor for three years and went on to a range of administrative jobs before becoming warden,” the newspaper reported.
Woodford was named department director in 2004. The following year, she was named Undersecretary as part of the department’s reorganization to CDCR. She also served as acting Secretary in 2006.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke highly of her.
“I am confident that Jeanne’s extensive background in corrections and her proven ability to lead will be instrumental in bringing about the necessary changes in California’s prison system,” said Gov. Schwarzenegger.
Her departure after such a long CDCR career was not an easy choice, she said.
“My decision to leave the department after 28 years has been a very personal one. This choice is based on my commitment to my family and in no way reflects any change in my belief that this department is headed in a positive direction,” she said in 2006. “We have made great progress toward reforming the largest correctional organization in the country and I know that those who will remain after me will continue to advocate the changes that must be made.”
After leaving CDCR, she went to work as the Chief of the San Francisco Adult Probation Department. She retired in 2008, wrapping up 30 years of county and state service.
In 1982, Midge Carroll assumed the warden post at the California Institution for Men at Chino, becoming the first woman to lead a men’s prison.
It wasn’t her first time at the prison. In 1972, she served as one of two of the facility’s first female Correctional Officers.
The July 5, 1982, issue of People Magazine ran an extensive piece on Carroll.
Her appointment came 50 years after the first female was appointed to run the Women’s Branch Department of San Quentin, later becoming an independent facility renamed the California Institution for Women at Tehachapi.
She had previously served as the Associate Superintendent of the Sierra Conservation Center.
As CIM warden, she immediately instituted a crackdown, ensuring all vehicles were searched before leaving the prison grounds and maintaining strict surveillance over inmate movement.
“When I was working (at SCC), I ran the institution like a boot camp, and we’re going to have rules here – go by the book. You don’t make exceptions – for employees or inmates,” she told the magazine.
In 1966, she started her career with the California Institution for Women.
She told the magazine, working in the prison system “has made me less trusting and more suspicious. … It’s not all negative. I realized someone could commit a horrible crime, but I could still find that individual likable. It’s made me more sensitive to people in pain.”
Later, she was the warden for the Deuel Vocational Institution and according to a Jan. 16, 1989, edition of The New York Times, was the only female warden of a men’s facility in the entire state at the time.
From 1989 to 1991 and again from 1998-1999, when she permanently retired, Carroll led the Parole and Community Services Division as a department deputy director.
In 1991, Gov. Pete Wilson named Peggy Kernan the first warden of CSP-Solano. She stayed in the post until she retired in 1995.
CSP-Solano had previously been part of California Medical Facility but split off into its own facility in 1992.
She had served as deputy warden of Mule Creek State Prison from 1988 until 1991. She is also credited as being “one of the first women to work in a supervisory capacity at San Quentin,” according to sources.
Kernan began her state career in 1963 and served in a variety of clerical positions until 1971 when she accepted an appointment at CDC headquarters as a Training Officer and later as a Correctional Counselor in Classification Services.
In 1979, she accepted a Training and Development assignment as a Correctional Lieutenant at San Quentin, according to a January 1992 issue of Correction News. She served in many posts at San Quentin until 1984, promoting to Program Administrator with the Planning and Construction Division.
Kernan transferred to California Medical Facility in 1986 as Program Administrator and in 1987 was promoted to Correctional Administrator, Custody Operations at CMF-South.
She worked for the Department for 32 years and passed away in 2003.
Her son, Scott Kernan, began his career as a correctional officer, worked his way up through the ranks and eventually served as Secretary of CDCR.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer