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Even in Harshest Prisons, Women Work as Guards

April 22, 2002

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Even in Harshest Prisons, Women Work as Guards

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The pay and the benefits are an attraction, and some say their presence leads to better behavior by inmates.

OSSINING, N.Y. -- Cheryl Patton walks into work wearing no makeup, no perfume and no jewelry, and with her hair pulled up and back in a bun. She cannot be a temptation, nor can she be an easy mark to grab.

"There are only predators here," Patton said, "and the preyed upon."

Patton is a corrections officer in Sing Sing, the all-male maximum-security prison here, where 2,400 of the state's most-violent criminals serve their sentences. Most are serving at least 10 years; many are serving life sentences.

Patton doesn't want to know what the prisoners did. "A person may have never been disrespectful," she said, "and then you find out that they pushed a baby off a roof. Or cut their mother's head off."

In the five years she has worked here, Patton, 41, has guarded every inch of the facility, including Tappan, the medium-security wing.

As Patton hands out volleyballs in B-block gym, escorts inmates to the mess hall or locks one into his cell on a wintry day, she occasionally rubs her belly or presses her palms against the small of her back. Patton is six months' pregnant with her first child.

How does that play out at work?

Patton's gaze turned fixed. "It doesn't."

Of the 754 corrections officers on staff at Sing Sing, 177 are women. In New York state, of the 22,135 corrections officers, 1,935 are women. But with women in the workplace for generations now, doing everything from driving forklifts to refereeing NBA games, a female guard in a men's maximum-security prison still has the power to shock.

"Almost everyone is surprised to learn that there are women guarding maximum- security men convicts," said Ted Conover, a journalist who became a corrections officer at Sing Sing in the late 1990s and wrote about his experience in "Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing," (Random House) which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. "On an intuitive basis, it's ill-advised, just as men guarding women seems ill-advised."

Women began to enter the system as corrections officers at men's maximum-security prisons in the late '70s. Glenn S. Goord, commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections, was working then at Eastern, a men's maximum-security facility in Napanoch.

"What I saw happen as they started to come in was that the inmates behaved themselves better," he said from his office in Albany. "There was more pride in how they looked, and they watched their words."

Both Charlotte Wellington, another female Sing Sing guard, and Patton are African-American. At Sing Sing, only 10 of the female officers are white; 138 are black; and 26 are Hispanic. The great majority of the inmates are black and Hispanic.

Patton, a former youth counselor, keeps everything about her personal life private, for security reasons. She said there was an element of curiosity to her decision to become a corrections officer.

"I wanted to see what was lurking behind those big walls," she said. "It felt like history, like a lot of stuff happened there."

But her prime concern was more basic: "I wanted the paycheck."

Corrections officers are paid $33,567 after one year of probationary status, and they can retire after 25 years of service. They work eight-hour shifts, day or night.

Financial security also drew Wellington, 31. "Some people work until they are 65, get a pension and die," she said. "I can get one at 47, and that sounds inviting."

Wellington didn't want to guard women. "I thought they'd give me too many problems," she said. "I thought the men would be easier, that, since I was a woman, the men would be more compliant."

But compliance is only one of the challenges she faces. "Men think you like them or they like you, and that's a problem," Wellington said.

"You have be a strong individual to do this job and to really make a difference," Wellington said. "But do we make a difference? Can we really do anything for these guys? In essence, in reality, no, we really can't. But we can make their life calmer by being calm ourselves. But if you want purpose, this isn't the job for you."

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