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.” 



Correctional Officers, Female Offenders, Women in Prison

What I Learned in Prison

                                                                    Women in Front and Behind the Cell Bars #3

Disclaimer: No real names used. 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 under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This is the first post.
The red brick building I stopped in front of looked like the other eight buildings nearby. Behind me, I heard the sound of a car careening to a stop in front of the unit across the grass. Two Correctional Officers ran up the walkway towards the unit where Wise Ass had gone to just a couple of minutes earlier.
I pulled on the door handle of my assigned building and found it locked. A black rubber button on the left side of the door looked like a doorbell but something told me it wasn’t. I flipped through the five nearly identically shaped silver keys on the metal ring that Sarg had given me and slipped the largest key into the lock above the handle. The cylinder clicked but the door didn’t open. I tried twice more.

A knocking sound came from my right side. Two young women in blue t-shirts and jeans, inside the living unit, looked at me through a wide window. One pointed at the door and made a twisting motion with one hand and a pulling motion with the other.

                Okay, so the female offenders taught me how to open the unit door on my first day.

Once inside I heard some laughter. It came a quarter of the way down the hallway. I expected the offenders to laugh, but it was the staff members sitting on a desk. Oh yeah, they were expecting the ‘new boot.’

“At least you didn’t push the button,” the older guy said and smiled. He looked like Rosie Grier, the football player.

“Yeah, the other newbie across the way pushed it,” the woman who was about my mother’s age said and pointed to the unit where Wise Ass had entered. “It’s an alarm, not a doorbell.” She slapped her thigh, laughed hard and then hooted “Oh, lawd that was funny.” 

I drew a deep breath. Thank goodness, I listened to my gut.

The female staff member, Mrs. South, notified the unit supervisor that I had arrived and after introductions, she told me to watch and listen to my co-workers as they went about their shift. I had two days of ‘shadowing,’ the staff before I’d be on my own.

                                                    Have you ever gone to a foreign country?

You don’t know the language, culture or rules. That feeling of being out of place, stared at, and vulnerable sweeps over you. You try to act like you’re okay with everything, but you’re not. Several young women sat in large softback chairs arranged in slanted rows on the right side of the living area. They frequently turned and looked at me. They were checking me out. A pretty young woman with a blonde ponytail came up to the counter and wanted to know my name and age. I gave my first and last name.

Mrs. South asked if I was a Miss or Mrs., “I’m getting married in two months…” Her hand flew up in front of my face. “Call her Miss Alvarado,” she told the girl, who promptly left and spoke to a couple of other girls.

“Don’t give them more info than absolutely necessary,” she instructed me.

Rosey Grier shook his head. “No nicknames, horseplay, or otherwise over familiarization.” I never heard the word ‘horseplay’ before but I understood the rest.

“Before we leave this desk, take this.” Mrs. South handed me a shoestring knotted with another. “Use it as a belt. String your personal alarm and keys through it.” I was so embarrassed that I didn’t look at Rosey Grier.

                                                      As we walked and talked, she ‘schooled me down.’

Within a few hours, I had another vocabulary: wicket, yard, count, code 2, code 3, trays, scrape, 24’s, EP’s. “Keep your head up, watch your surroundings, don’t act scared even if you are.” I needed a notebook for the info and earplugs for the noise of clanking keys, doors, and buzzers.

Meanwhile, the female offenders looked at me or looked away from me. Some looked scary, some like typical high schoolers, a couple like surfer girls, and one like a shy mouse. My co-worker said I’d interact with the ‘wards,’ the next day.

“So are all of them here for misdemeanor stuff,” I asked.

“No, all felonies.”

This was confusing. In college, ‘wards,’ referred to wards of the court, under 18 years of age, not for felons. She saw the question on my face.

“This facility was modeled after Dr. Glasser’s therapies. The social workers tell us to call them wards.”

“You mean Dr. William Glasser, the founder of Reality Therapy?”

“He did his research here, but that was back in the early sixties when we had runaways and incorrigibles. Things have changed. There weren’t drug babies, coke fiends, and gangbangers back then like now,” she said.

After my eight hours were over, I felt a little disoriented. Mrs. South buzzed open the front door for me. “Don’t forget that belt tomorrow,” her voice rang out as I rushed out into the clear evening air.
Female Offenders, Women in Prison

Women in Prison: In Front and Behind the Cell Bars #2

Disclaimer: No real names used. 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 under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Last week I gave some of the back story to my introduction into the Criminal Justice field. Much of the training I received to do my job at the Correctional Facility was OJT: 
                                                                   On the job training

I began working before I went to the academy in Northern California, because of a backlog. On my first day I sat in the foyer with two other nervous employees-both were men a couple of years older than me. We didn’t have uniforms in those days because we were ‘counselors,’ not correctional officers like the others. We were told to wear pants (no jeans), tennis shoes, and a collared shirt. Purses could be placed in our lockers. I’m sure we looked like any other college aged kids…except to the old time employees. They passed by us, some shook their heads, one told the reception officer, 

                                                       “Uh, let me guess, new boots, huh?” 

Our first stop was the administration building, a maze of hallways with glossy linoleum floors. Our escort stopped short at a door, tapped on the chrome face plate that said WARDEN, then turned to look at us like we were supposed to cast our eyes to the floor. A secretary stepped out and ushered us into a large carpeted room with the US and California flags in each corner of the wall behind an expansive mahogany desk. It think it was faux wood.

The Warden seemed genial enough but didn’t invite us to sit down. He stood up, welcomed us, and came around to the front of the desk where he walked back and forth speaking about the mission of the Department and the seriousness nature of the job. He ended by looking straight at me,

                                           “These offender’s ain’t here for singing too loud in the choir.” 

I thought that was quite funny but I kept on my poker face. One of the other new boots laughed, “good one, sir.” The Warden didn’t smile. Our escort looked pissed off and later told him not to be a wise ass.

After we visited the personnel office, clerical services and two more offices in between, our escort walked us up to what he called a “Com Center,” short for communications center. At the end of the building on the left was an enclosed glass area, which looked like an air traffic control center. We walked up a few steps and heard a loud buzzer. Our escort pulled open the door and ushered us inside to meet the Com Center Sergeant who I’m sure was a Marine Drill Sergeant in another life.

The entire facility lay out, left to right, in front of the glass like the top half of a wagon wheel. Several one story brick buildings dotted the greenbelt that was crisscrossed with cement walkways and a perimeter of black asphalt and steel grey fences. 

                                               “This is your workplace, be careful, be alert.” 

The Sarg said this as he looked left to right and then fiddled with the black control panel in front of him. It was covered with white lights which occasionally lit up to green or red. Bracketed to a wall near a small side window were rows of wooden slots filled with small boxlike items. 

The Sarg pulled one out and thrust it toward me, “Wear it at all times.” I didn’t know what ‘it’ was or where it went until he pulled out two more and gave them to the others. The transistor radio looking item was encased in a leather covering with a round opening in the front. A red number was printed on the top of the case. “It’s your ‘Panic Button,’ loop it through your belt.” I wasn’t wearing a belt. 

                        “Always wear a belt, where do you think your keys hang, in your purse?” 

Wise Ass smirked. The escort shook his head. The Sarg looked at me up and down. I took a deep breath. “No sir.” 

“Okay,” Sarg said while he took some papers from our escort. “You’re assigned to Golondrina,” he said to one of the guys and then pointed to a brick building on the left side of the facility. “You go to Gaviota,” he said to Wise Ass and pointed towards the center of the area. “And you, kiddo, you get to go to Mariposa.” He pointed to the right, where there were two identical brick buildings. Sarg distributed keys to each of us. “Keys are marked with the call numbers of your unit.”

                                                         “DO NOT LOSE YOUR KEYS.”

Our escort led us down the steps and pointed out the buildings to each of us again. Then pushed us on our way. There was a huge expanse of grass, the length of a football field, between one set of buildings in the center and the one I had been assigned to on the right side of the facility. I walked across the asphalt roadway and made a beeline across the grass towards the unit.

                                                             “Get off the grass, new boot.”

Sarg’s voice boomed through the speaker and bounced off my ears. I turned around to see him standing at the glass window, his arms across his chest, shaking his head. A loud “Hah,” sounded on my left, it was Wise Ass, using the sidewalk. I jogged to the sidewalk and walked as fast as I could, to my new assignment, my first day of my twenty-eight year career working for the California Youth Authority. 

California Department of Corrections, Female Offenders, Television shows on prison, Women in Prison, Women Prisoners, Writing

Women in Prison: In Front and Behind the Cell Bars

photo from National Geographic
There has been an increase in T.V. female prisoner shows: Lockup, Cellblock 6 (TLC), Babies behind Bars (TLC), Beyond Scared Straight (A & E), and even Oprah’s OWN channel has Breaking Down Bars. Women are the fastest growing prison population in America and some of the toughest to handle.  

The subject of women in prison is a new one for this blog. After a year of posting I think it’s time I wrote about my experiences working in the Criminal Justice system. I spent 28 years working inside of Youth Correctional facilities in California and two years working at work furlough and prison pre-release programs, with male and female inmates, young offenders and older inmates. This has been a huge part of my working life. 

I can’t think of a ‘pretty picture’ to accompany this post so I chose the one that I feel is closest to the reality of life inside a prison. Granted, my life has been as a correctional worker, not as a prisoner. but I offer my perspective of women behind and in front of the cell bars.

My career has affected me in so many ways that all three of my works-in-progress (WIP’s) are about characters on both sides of the law. One of the three WIP’s is set inside of a women’s prison and much of the setting is real, for that particular facility.  

For now I’ll begin with some background, not of my upbringing , but my career back story. In other words, how did I get from Catholic school to working inside of prison walls? 

After changes to my major (Psychology, Teaching, English) I found my niche: Sociology and Criminal Justice. During my Junior year I took a field trip to Lompoc Federal Penitentiary. It wasn’t scary until they let a large group of male inmates into the 16×20 conference room with two Correctional Officers (CO’s) a Caseworker and two teachers. 

It was like a show and tell about the programs inside. I was a shapely twenty year old with long hair to my waist. I felt naked as I sat on a folding chair and tried to make myself as small as possible. The teachers and Caseworker spoke and I heard the passion, and tiredness, in their voices. The passion was for the belief in rehabilitation and the tiredness was from the reality that everyone cannot or will not change. The ‘pitch’ was for student tutors, primarily for literacy tutors. I knew enough about the lives of drug dealers, con men and sweet talk that I was not going to volunteer for the program. 

During my Senior year I had more loans than scholarships and grants. I applied for a paid internship and that is how I ended up working with a Psychologist and two Probation Officers (PO’s) at a 90 day Pre-Release program for Lompoc Fed inmates. The staff mentored me and had me assist in their paperwork, especially the P.O’s. I spent eight months sitting in small group counseling sessions with a different group of eight parolees three times a week, the Psych, and one PO. I experienced the ‘games,’ got tough quick, learned the prison jargon, the Psych’s language, and the PO’s workload. 

My mentors recommended I go into Probation or work at the Juvenile Hall. I decided to apply at a Youth Correctional Facility in my county, graduated with my B.A.in June, and began working in July. I was twenty one years old, a new Youth Correctional Counselor, and my caseload of eight females ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-four. Most of them were older than me. 

The Youth Correctional Facility is under the Division of Juvenile Justice which is under the California Department of Corrections. There have been several changes throughout the years and the facility has housed ages 12-24 year old females to 16-21 year old males. It has been solely for girls and women, and then co-ed, back to all females 12-21 and now it’s coed again. The population has been as high as 1100 to a low of 230. Gender changes and population fluctuates in response to sentencing laws, prison overcrowding, and deteriorating structures. 

A prison is a world of its own. There are staff rules, inmate rules, gang rules, race rules and others that are best left for another time. Every Wednesday, my intention is to show readers this world, the girls and women inside (which I will refer to as female offenders), the sub-cultures, and the hopes and aspirations of young women doing time.