Female Offenders, Women in Prison

What I Learned in Prison: Women in Front and Behind Cell Bars #4

These stories are from one employee’s perspective during 1980-2008 with the California Youth Authority (CYA).Training, classifications, and agency have significantly changed in the last 10-15 years. There is no longer a CYA, it merged with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Any names are fictional. This is the first post.

After a couple of days of shadowing my co-workers, I met other staff members who worked on and off the living unit. There was the unit cook, the night dwellers (staff who worked the graveyard shift), the Senior Youth Counselor, Youth Correctional Officers, Institutional Parole Agents, Supervising Parole Agents, Social Workers, Teachers, Lieutenants, Treatment Team Supervisors, and more.

I soon learned that a correctional facility had a hierarchy of staff titles and roles. In the very early ’80’s the facility I worked at had more of a ‘rehabilitative’ environment so the result was two ‘branches’ working together (most of the time): the custody part and the treatment part. During one week, I heard several euphemisms for these two sections: the goon squad and the bleeding hearts, the guards and the social workers, security and the hippies. The advice was most often given by all:
                                                                                            Don’t Act Scared
Three days later, I met the seven girls (wards) assigned to my caseload. There we sat, in a loose rectangle of chairs in the dayroom of the unit, with the noisy washing machine and dryer running in the room behind us and twelve feet from the staff desk with the incessant ringing of phones and door buzzers. The Senior advised me that after I had a few groups in the dayroom I could move to the kitchen.

Before I sat down I caught some of the girls staring at me, others turned their bodies away from me and began chatting to the other girls, and another sat with her head down, biting her fingernails. (None of them looked as interested in small group as the women in the photo above).

This could not be more difficult than being in the small group with the adult felons from Lompoc Federal Penitentiary so I took a deep breath. Not only were the girls watching me but the staff at the desk waited to see how I’d respond. 
I stood up. “Everyone up, pull your chairs into a circle, and then we’ll begin,” I said in the firmest but polite, non-shaky voice I could muster. The eyes that had looked elsewhere focused in on me heads raised, and the girl stopped biting her nails. They stood up, not quickly, not cooperatively but eventually they all stood up. 
                            The first rule of supervision  is to establish who you are and your expectations.

The introductions took several minutes and reminders that we had to use their proper names, not their nicknames. The girls ranged in age from fifteen to eighteen and their crimes varied from a drive-by shooting, robbery, sales of narcotics, theft, prostitution, assault with a deadly weapon, and accessory to murder. 

Like most teenagers the girls wanted to know who I was, what I was about and why was I working in a ‘place like this,’ instead of being married and raising kids. The small group could have been any social gathering at a high school except these were girls who had histories of drug use, abuse, bad decision-making, and…wait, doesn’t that sound like a few high school teens you may know?  

The difference was these girls committed crimes and serious ones that called for more than the one-year maximum term is given at their local Juvenile Hall. The average sentence, in the early ’80’s, was fifteen months with the maximum of seven years. 

I survived my first small group, eventually made it into the kitchen for a quieter environment, and established a rapport with the girls and staff. Two months later and right when I was getting acclimated to the place I received a letter to report to the Correctional Academy in Northern California, two weeks after my marriage date. 

from CDCR website

After I showed my letter to my supervisor she said, “Now get ready to unlearn everything we just taught you.” 



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