These days, most states allow male correctional staff to supervise female inmates and vice-versa. But issues commonly arise from cross-gender supervision. Not long ago, female staff were not permitted to work in maximum security housing or with mentally ill inmates of the opposite sex. However, that has changed.
Cross-gender supervision of inmates may impact the number of inappropriate relationships between staff and inmates, but in my personal experience, these issues are more about personal integrity than gender. I have terminated nearly the same number of male and female staff for having relationships with inmates – some homosexual relationships and others heterosexual.
But what do inmates think about cross-gender supervision? To find out, I interviewed female inmates and asked what impact gender had on their ability to function in a correctional setting.
HM is a 48-year-old white female serving three consecutive five-year sentences for grand theft, fraud and forgery. This is her third incarceration. She previously served a one-year sentence and an eight-year sentence for the same types of crimes.
I interview HM to ask her her feelings about having male staff supervise female inmates. She said she feels uncomfortable with male staff around, and in fact, said there are some professional male staff she actually feels more comfortable with.
“Having a mix is good,” she said. “Sometimes male staff understands our issues better than female staff.”
HM has seen several of her fellow inmates “use their sexuality” to “trap” male staff. Though, she said, “I’m not sure that gender matters. If an inmate is going to take advantage of a staff member, or vice versa, it’s a character issue more than anything.”
She’s also seen instances of attractive female inmates paying attention to male staff who, on the outside, “wouldn’t be given the time of day.” A few of these scenarios ended with the CO losing his job. In the end, HM says, it’s about being professional.
QW is a 33-year-old black female who has been incarcerated since 1996 on a second degree murder charge.
QW said when she first came to prison at age 19 it was very uncomfortable to have men working in the dorms.
“Back then, men walked in when you were naked or in the shower or any time. They stared at you and made you feel embarrassed.”
But she says the rules are stricter now, and that male staff are good to have around.
She recalled a male staff member who helped inmates learn Bible verses and others who gave the inmates “fatherly” advice. QW said of course you have your perverts, but overall staff she has encountered has been “good and pleasant”.
Character over gender
Both of the inmates I interviewed denied a history of sexual trauma, which may impact one’s perspective on cross-gender supervision. In the end, I concur with the inmates (something I do not often do) in saying that gender is far less important than integrity. Staff with high morale character will not take advantage of offenders, regardless of their gender.
Sources Flesher, F. (2007). "Cross Gender supervision of Women in Prisons and the Constitutional Right of Prisoners to Remain Free From Rape." Spring, page 281.
About the author
Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. She has served on the administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University for 17 years. During her tenure at the University, she ran a study abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy.
In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country.
Dr. Bedard has published and lectured world wide on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the warden at the Moore Haven Correctional Facility in south Florida.