Unlocking History

First female correctional officers faced resistance

Skirt-wearing female California prison officer shows new uniforms.
California Institution for Men front gate officer, circa 1974.

Today’s CDCR has numerous women working in all areas including wardens, correctional officers, parole agents and other leadership roles. While they have proven their capabilities and value many times over, they didn’t have an easy path. In the early 1970s, the department made a concerted effort to hire and train women to work in the state’s prisons but those early cadets faced resistance and open hostility from coworkers, supervisors, inmates and even a state senator.

First female cadets trained at Soledad

One of the department’s first trainers was Lt. William Richard Wilkinson, a veteran of the corrections department. He was employed from 1951 until 1981.

“It was in the second academy that women came into the department. We were not really prepared for them,” writes Wilkinson in the book “Prison Work.”

The department’s Central Office in Sacramento tried to pave the way prior to the women’s arrival at the academy, which started in 1972 at the old South Facility at Soledad State Prison. Despite his role in training the new female cadets, Wilkinson was skeptical and didn’t believe women should work in a men’s institution.

“I had the first eight females in the department. Moreover, nobody told me I was getting them,” Wilkinson wrote. “So at the last minute I had eight women with no place to sleep, no living quarters. So I sent them to a motel for that night. It was already 9 o’clock and I had to drive them to Salinas.”

No special treatment

The Wilkinson had misgivings about training women and the role they were to play in corrections.

“The assertion coming from Sacramento was they are just as capable as a man and that kind of thing, which was not true,” he wrote. “Of course they were intelligent enough. If you want to get into the physical part of it, however, that is a personal thing. If you are looking for help, then a 115-pound woman is not going to be advantageous compared to having a 160-pound male.”

He was also concerned about being fair to the female employees and not giving them preferential treatment.

“The reluctance, conscious or subconscious, with the women meant you had to pay close attention, or you would wind up putting your female in (choice) positions. It is not fair to the female, and it is not fair to the officer you kick out (of that position),” he wrote.

Wilkinson organized and set up the first three sessions of the academy, then returned to his post at California Medical Facility (CMF).

“I will never forget the day when I came back to my office at CMF and found (it) filled with purses. The first female correctional officers had arrived and the watch sergeant had sent them all over and they left their purses all over my desk and everything else,” he wrote.

After a few days, the purses no longer found their way inside the institution, instead remaining in the trunks of the female officers’ vehicles, he wrote.

CIM hires female officers

“In 1973, women correctional officers were hired for the first time to work at California Institution for Men (CIM). At the time, there was a certain amount of vocal opposition,” according to “The History of Chino Prison: The First Fifty Years” by Michael Brown.

Brown was incarcerated at CIM after spending decades in the system. Chief Deputy Warden Bob Bales asked Brown to write the book to mark the 50th anniversary of the institution in 1991.

“In 1978, because of his outstanding writing skills, he was selected to write the ‘History of Folsom Prison’ to commemorate that institution’s centennial celebration,” Bales wrote. “The (CIM) Anniversary Committee was extremely pleased with the informal history researched and written by Mike Brown, and particularly that he placed stress on the more positive factors that make CIM such a unique institution. We are most appreciative of his effort. The book gives our dedicated employees a sense of pride and accomplishment that they are part of history.”

The first female officers were treated the same as other officers as far as assignments were considered.

“The first female correctional officers hired at (CIM) in 1973 were Geri McLaughlin, Shirley McGee, Delphine Williams and Dorothy Killlian,” according to the book.

“The policy at (CIM) regarding assignment for women correctional officers was formulated through trial and error, as it was at every other correctional facility. The women officers started on the First Watch (midnight to 8 a.m.), but seniority policy dictated their assignment to that watch in any case,” Brown wrote. “As time went by, women correctional officers were gradually assigned to nearly every position or post.”

Resistance from lawmaker

Despite the changes in hiring policy, state Senate Resolution 54 (SR 54) aimed to take things at a slower pace.

On June 21, 1973, the resolution offered by Senator Hubert L. Richardson sought “a moratorium on the hiring of female correctional officers in state correctional institutions which have all male residents.”

SR 54 also claimed “there is no dispute of the fact that female corrections officers cannot handle all of the functions and responsibilities required of a corrections officer.”

The resolution went so far as to claim “further reason this practice is dangerous is man’s natural instinct to protect a female. His safety is jeopardized when his attentions are diverted from the inmate problem on hand to that of protecting the lives of female officers.”

In September 1973, Richardson continued his crusade.

“I said (equal opportunity) would be used as a tool to force women into jobs where they couldn’t perform as efficiently as men. For this, I was called a hater of women, an unfair legislator and a male chauvinist pig. I was right. Nothing proves it more than the Department (hiring) female guards so they won’t be accused of discriminating against women. San Quentin, Soledad and Vacaville now have female prison guards. Start a ridiculous program and the foolishness will soon compound itself,” he wrote.

SR 54 appears to have been stuck in committee and by Nov. 30, 1974, was “from committee without further action.”

Richardson served as a senator from 1966 until 1989.

Recruitment and retention

In mid-1974, in part thanks to the efforts of Deputy Director Arlene Becker, the prison system made a concerted effort to hire, train and retain females.

Becker was appointed June 1, 1972, to help oversee the integration of women into the custody side of the workforce.

“The department cannot supervise the feelings and opinion of managers, but it can supervisor their behavior,” she wrote.

Becker would later be appointed director of Parole and Community Services.

Female Folsom Prison officers speak out

Woman stands in front of a prison while wearing an officer's uniform.
Joyce Zink at Folsom State Prison wearing the newly adopted uniform, 1973. (CDCR file photo.)

In 1977, there were eight female correctional officers working at Folsom State Prison. They spoke to the Associated Press about their experiences in stories published Jan. 20 of that year.

“Maria Tingey says the inmates at … Folsom Prison sometimes yell angrily at her, but they always feel sorry and apologize later,” the AP reported. “They’re just not suited to taking orders from women, said Joyce Zink, another of the eight women (officers) at the all-male, 1,800-inmate prison. (Correctional Officer) Janet Matsuda says she likes her work, but she cautions other women about entering the field.”

“They should get good counseling,” Matsuda said. “You should really think about whether you have the ability to do it. … Women have to prove themselves more … to their supervisors, their fellow officers and the inmates. It isn’t fair but it’s fact.”

Tingey, a mother of three and a former prison office worker, was blunt about women coming into the male-dominated workforce of the prison. She had also previously worked as an officer at California Institution for Men.

“A woman should consider whether she can do more good than harm in this work. The convict will try their best, as they do with every officer, to make you uncomfortable. They have a new trick every day,” Tingey said.

Officer Zink, the only woman at Folsom allowed to work in the cellblocks, said she didn’t appreciate the different treatment.

“I don’t like being restricted in my job because I’m a woman,” she said. “The point is that if a task is being done in a professional manner, what does it matter if the person doing it is male or female?”

Women officers faced harassment

While women were added to the corrections workforce, many found hostile work environments. In the early 1980s, it all came to a head.

By 1981, Cjorli McKendry and four other women claimed they had been sexually harassed while working at Deuel Vocational Institution. In 1985, three women came forward at Folsom State Prison with similar allegations. McKendry was frustrated.

“Another case of sexual harassment and discrimination. (The) same thing was going to happen again,” she told McClatchy News Service in November 1985. “They said they were going to have an immediate investigation. What’s an immediate investigation – 10 years from now?”

The Folsom female employees claimed male correctional officers “manhandled, cursed and harassed them.”

According to the news report at the time, “women complained the men verbally and physically harassed them. In one case, a woman at the prison in Tracy said she was offered better jobs in exchange for sex.”

Recollections of early harassment

For many, sexual harassment in a male-dominated profession came as no surprise.

“Capt. Lynn Cox, one of the highest-ranking women in the department as head of its background investigations unit, said harassment has always been a reality for women in the department,” the news service reported. “Early in her profession, she was the first female sergeant to work the night shift at California Institution for Men.”

She said it was difficult.

“I look back on those days as the best in my career, but it was awful. These women that were crying about sexual harassment – we didn’t know those words existed,” she said. “I went home every morning crying. It was like being a battered wife all night long.”

In 1974, Sgt. Jo Sordrager went to work at the department. When she made her way to a men’s institution, “the male officers ignored her until she had proven herself. Now, she said, she has no problems,” the news service reported.

The department responded by taking action.

“At the Department of Corrections, officials are trying to address sexual harassment through better training,” the news service reported. “Recently the department held courses for the people who will lead sexual harassment classes at the state’s prisons. It resurrected the Women’s Liaison Council, an organization to address women’s needs. ‘This director (of corrections) and myself are concerned,’ said (Chief Deputy Director Jim Gomez). ‘We want to increase the representation of women in this department.'”

Director Dan McCarthy said he was unaware the problem was so widespread until the 1985 Folsom Prison allegations.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

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