The rising number of U.S. female correctional officers has spurred allegations of sexual misconduct behind bars. But the chief of their association calls it a ‘slap in the face.'
When Nevada Correctional Officer Tamara Bartel worries about prison sexual misconduct, she’s not always thinking of what happens between the inmates under her care.
As more women break the once all-male preserve of jail and prison correctional officers, reports of sexual misbehavior between female staff and prisoners have surfaced across the United States. And that particularly concerns Bartel, who is president of the National Association of Female Correctional Officers, founded in 2008.
“It’s a slap in the face to those of us who go to work and do our job,” says Bartel, 49, an officer in a high-security lockdown housing unit that is home to 119 male inmates at Nevada’s 1,600-bed Lovelock Correctional Center.
According to data from the American Correctional Association, more than 150,000 women worked as correctional officers in 2007, up 40 percent from 1999. Thousands more serve as nurses, counselors, maintenance staff and administration staff in prisons, jails and youth facilities around the country.
The reports about misconduct, particularly by women, threaten to overshadow the many improvements correctional officers and experts believe women have brought to the field.
A Moderating Force
“We used to think that we can act crude, and cuss, and do all sorts of negative things because it’s a prison,” says Susan Jones, 49, warden of the Centennial Correctional Facility in Colorado. “Women moderated that.”
But Jones adds that professionalism, good communications skills and a softer touch are not qualities inherent, or limited, to women staff.
“I have run into women who are very tough, very vulgar,” Jones said. “Women aren’t the pure race.”
Sexual misconduct in the world “behind the wall” has received increasing attention since 2003, when Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The law mandated that the Department of Justice (DOJ) take surveys to gauge the scope of the problem.
The conversation about sexual abuse is not new, but for years it has focused largely as rape among inmates, or sexual coercion by male guards in female facilities. When the surveys indicated sexual misconduct by female staff represented a disproportionate amount of the incidents behind bars, the results surprised many in and out of the correctional community.
A 2007 DOJ survey found that female staff in state and federal prisons accounted for 58 percent of the 38,600 alleged cases of sexual misconduct reported (anonymously) by inmates in state and federal prisons—representing 2.9 percent of the inmate population. In a 2010 DOJ survey of youth in detention, 10.3 percent reported sexual contact with staff. More than nine times out of ten, they said female staffers committed the violations.
But the fact that the number was surprising was also an indication of double standards towards women who enter the corrections field, argues Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University who specializes in prison issues.
Smith sat on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to outline recommendations for stopping prison sexual abuse. The Commission, which submitted its report to the Department of Justice in 2009, emphasized abuse is preventable through leadership, rigorous oversight and the active participation of institutions willing to look candidly at the issues cropping up behind their four walls.
Sexual misconduct by women is one, Smith said, and given the major changes in the profession in the last two decades, the numbers should not be so surprising.
Women make up about 25 percent of officers in federal prisons, and more than 40 percent in some state facilities, according to federal and state statistics. The Department of Justice found that women officers, counselors, nurses and other staff fill about two of every five positions in juvenile facilities.
Bartel, like many of her peers, was looking for a job with decent pay and good benefits. Trolling the Internet one day, the California native, then 24, with an associate degree in criminal justice, came across a listing for openings at a new prison in Nevada. Fifteen years later, she is one of the prison’s two senior female officers.
And like many women officers, she works in a unit in which the 119 felons she guards are male. While the demographic of staff has shifted, about 90 percent of the more than 2.3 million people who live behind bars are men.
The 24/7 contact with inmates creates a challenge for training as well as monitoring guards and staff. “I have seen in the course of my career cases of every stripe,” says A.T. Wall, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. “Some look like traditional sexual assault. Some look like love. Some look like convenience and mutual gratification.”
In the eyes of the law, it makes little difference whether there is coercion or not. Prisoners cannot legally give consent. Sex between an officer and an inmate is a felony. Moreover, intimacies can also be dangerous.
“Sexual misconduct is the most combustible form of boundary violation,” adds Wall. “It’s especially serious if you are trying to run a safe and secure prison.”
In March 2010, Tasha Lass, an officer at Travis County jail in Texas, testified that she had developed a relationship with inmate Milton Gobert, who has since been sentenced to the death for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. She smuggled a $40 pre-paid cell phone to Gobert, who then asked for a gun with a silencer so he could escape. “He just made me feel needed,” Lass testified during the sentencing phase of Gobert’s trial. She was at the time a 17-year veteran of corrections.
A Texas jury indicted Lass in May for having a romantic relationship with an inmate. She faces 10 years and a $10,000 fine if convicted. Cases like hers have left many questioning how to gird female prison workers against the full range of hazards of the job.
Warnings about sexual misconduct were included in the 160 hours of officer training that Lori Miles received before going to work at Ohio’s all-male Toledo Correctional Institution in 2006. “Females were told not to carry on more than a two-minute conversation with the inmates,” recalls Miles, who is in her 30s.
Miles left corrections in 2008, after an inmate attacked her during a routine cell check. But it wasn’t the physical danger that soured her on the job. The problem with her training, according to Miles, was that it failed to give her a sense of what she would face in the world behind bars. “I don’t feel I was properly mentally prepared for it,” she says.
As more women enter the ranks of corrections officers, and exposed to the “complicated, sexualized” world of prisons and jails, institutions are still adapting, says Martin Horn, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
But still, adds Horn, “what’s remarkable to me is how infrequently bad things happen given the gargantuan frequency of interactions.”
It’s a message that seasoned professionals like Tamara Bartel hope prison officials and the general public will remember whenever cases such as Tasha Lass’ make the headlines.
Lisa Riordan Seville is a freelance writer and reporter based in Brooklyn, NY.