Unlocking History

Early female prison staff ranged from support to custody

Early female prison staff supervised women at San Quentin, like in this early courtyard image.
Women convicted of crimes were kept in San Quentin until the 1930s. (CDCR file photo circa 1910-1915.)

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

The first female prison staff didn’t wear badges. While women correctional officers were hired to work in California’s male prisons in the 1970s, women have held other prison positions for over 100 years. In honor of Women’s History Month, Inside CDCR takes a closer look at some of the early female staff.

Meet some of the early female prison staff

In 1944, San Quentin Warden Clinton T. Duffy hired his first female prison staff member. Many accounts claim she was the first woman to work inside San Quentin State Prison, but there were others.

“Louise Grillo assumed her duties today as stenographer-clerk to Warden Clinton Duffy,” reported the Madera Tribune, July 12, 1944. The news article proclaimed her the prison’s “first female employee.”

Duffy recounted staff reaction in his 1950 book, “The San Quentin Story.”

“There was apprehension just a few years ago when we replaced most of the inmate clerks and office workers with women employees,” Duffy wrote, indicating they also hired female nurses. A few objected but there was no major uproar.

Earlier prison staff

Despite those accounts, prison records show women worked at San Quentin as early as 1885. That was the year San Quentin’s first matron, Mrs. Lancaster, was hired to supervise the females.

In 1888, Warden McComb hired “Miss L.E. Spitman as the prison’s telegraph operator.”

At California Institution for Men, the first female prison staff were hired in 1944, just three years after activation.

“C.F. York and Lois Howell (were) assigned to clerical duties in the Business Office under the supervision of Business Manager Allen Cook,” according to the book, “The History of Chino Prison.” The first female correctional officers, hired in 1973, were Geri McLaughlin, Shirley McGee, Delphine Williams and Dorothy Killian.

Meanwhile, at California Medical Facility (CMF), there were six women working as officers in 1974. One of the first two hired was Marie Brooks. Across the state, there were 44 female correctional officers by March 1974.

Betty Brown, one of the six CMF officers, came with 10 years of correctional experience. She had previously worked at the California Youth Authority and the California Institution for Women. Carol Dahlberg, former matron of the Sacramento Police Department, was the only female officer on gun tower duty.

“I took (the job) and I’m glad I did,” said Dahlberg in the Valley Times, March 27, 1974. “A housewife I am not. I’m comfortable in my job and I like people.”

When an incarcerated man in a neighboring cellblock began blowing kisses at Dahlberg, she handled the situation “by calling the officer in charge and telling him to remind the (incarcerated man) he was dealing with a state correctional officer.”

Dorothy Taylor: San Quentin’s first female correctional officer

According to the San Quentin Alumni group, the first modern female correctional officer (CO) was a clerk promoted to the rank of officer to supervise a condemned female.

“If you want to go way back, Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Taylor was the first correctional officer 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, a retired associate warden. “Dolly was promoted to CO to (supervise) her. I believe Graham was there for six weeks before she was executed as she did get at least one stay (of execution).”

On June 3, 1955, Graham became the third female 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 Academy Award.

“After the execution, Dorothy demoted back to a clerical position and worked the mail room for many years,” Nelson said.

That wasn’t the end of Taylor’s career. During the 1970s, she again promoted to correctional officer and later retired from that position.

1950: First female hired at Folsom State Prison

The first female hired at Folsom State Prison was Alice Jacobs. As an intermediate clerk, she started June 19, 1950, hired by Warden Robert Heinze.

In 1958, she was the first female president of the Folsom State Prison Employees Protective Association. In 1963, she was part of the California State Employees Association at Folsom Prison.

“Since 1950, the number of women employees at the prison has grown steadily. Their duties and responsibilities have also increased as demonstrated by their ability to successfully compete for positions of authority traditionally held by men,” according to the book, “History of Folsom Prison 1878-1978.”

In 1978, the prison’s information officer and administrative assistant was Rosemary Dinos.

“She is required to do a great deal of public relations work (such as) speaking to groups and conducting tours of the prison,” the book states. “Dinos insures that the prison’s operational plans and procedures are in compliance with the Director’s Rules and Regulations and departmental policy.”

Correctional Counselor II Fay Long supervised five male counselors, “each of whom has a caseload of approximately 150. Her duties include supervising the preparation of and completion of all reports for the Community Release Board and expediting parole plans for (those) granted release dates, in addition to her periodic assignment as Officer of the Day.”

In 1978, females made up 11 percent of the prison’s workforce: 55 female employees compared to 451 men.

The first female warden appointed at Folsom Prison was Teresa Rocha in 1992. She began her correctional career in 1982 with the Planning and Construction Division, now known as the Division of Facility Planning, Construction and Management.

Linda Clarke was CTF’s first female officer, warden

In 1971, Linda Clarke became the first female officer to work at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, according to the book “History of Soledad,” written by retired Associate Warden Jeff Soares.

“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 wrote.

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

Clarke didn’t give up on promotions. She served as a CO until 1978. Nearly 20 years later, in 1995, she was appointed as CTF’s first female warden.

Another one of the first female officers was Bobbie Santacruz. In 1975, she left the prison to join the U.S. Marine Corps.

Santacruz served as a police officer before becoming a correctional officer at CTF. She said it was challenging being a woman working in a male-dominated field.

“They’d tell me that one of these days some woman would come in and take their job, a job that ‘family men’ need,” she told the Long Beach Press-Telegram, April 16, 1975. “I had more trouble with my fellow officers than I did with any of the (incarcerated) guys.”

According to the newspaper, there were 200 correctional officers working at CTF in 1975, with 14 of them being women.

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