Unlocking History

Women unlock leadership roles in California prison system

By Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer

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 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 corrections field – leadership. These are just some of their stories.

From correctional officers to leaders

Ruth Rushen

Woman smiles and looks toward camera.
Ruth Rushen.

In 1980, Ruth Rushen became the first woman and first African American to serve as the director of the department.

Rushen previously worked for the Los Angeles County Probation Department for 18 years and did a five-year stint on the California Board of Prison Terms.

A June 1981 Ebony magazine interview profiled Rushen. In an accompanying photo, she is standing next to Folsom Prison Warden P.J. Morris.

“If we really want to do something about crime in our society, we’re going to have to make up our minds about what we are going to risk and how much responsibility we’re willing to accept,” she told the magazine. “There is a lot of money that passes out of the ghetto into the other part of society. Arresting the little pusher down there in Watts is not going to stop crime – you can bust him all day long. You really have to go to Beverly Hills and find the guy who’s financing it. It’s sort of like who the burglar is selling the diamonds to. You certainly know the millions are not in Watts.”

Regarding her appointment, she told Ebony at first she thought someone was pulling her leg.

“I was the first woman on the parole board, and that was macho enough,” she said.

Rushen also addressed rehabilitation, saying once someone has reached the gates of a prison, it’s very difficult to improve that person. She said the issues should be addressed long before they reach such a point.

“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 but in 2001, Teresa Rocha served as acting Director. She was in the post less than a year.

Two men swear-in a woman. Behind them is a flag. She is raising her right hand while her other hand is on a Bible.
Jeanne Woodford rose through the ranks, eventually becoming director of the department and later, after it was reorganized in 2005, the acting secretary.

Jeanne Woodford

In 1978, Jeanne Woodford started her career as a Correctional Officer at the state’s oldest prison – 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 (correction officer), Woodford then was a counselor to inmates for three years and went on to a range of administrative jobs before becoming warden,” the newspaper reported. Some of those posts included Associate Warden and Chief Deputy Warden.

Later, she was named Director of the department in 2004. She was then named Undersecretary in 2005, after the Department was reorganized as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 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.

Woman smiling looks toward the camera.
Midge Carroll.

Midge Carroll

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.

Woman speaks to an inmate through the bars of a cell door.
Peggy Kernan at San Quentin State Prison, 1983.

Peggy Kernan

In 1991, Gov. Pete Wilson named Peggy Kernan the first warden of CSP-Solano. She stayed in the post until she retired in 1995.

Woman sits at desk with flags in the background.
Peggy Kernan.

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, when she was promoted to Program Administrator with the Planning and Construction Division.

She 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.