CHARLESTON, S.C. — One to 64. That ratio comes up time and time again at the Cannon Detention Center, and is never far from the thoughts of the correctional officers who work there.
One guard for every 64 inmates. Yet despite being vastly outnumbered as she paced one of the jail’s open-bay units recently, Abdiva Baxter, 38, walked with confidence, head held high, commanding authority from the male inmates.
Some watched idly as she passed by. Others paid little mind to her, choosing instead to focus their attention on a game of checkers, a nearby television or the walls and glass that locked them all in.
Baxter welcomed the calm that day. She had no weapon to protect herself if something were to go wrong – authorities have determined that the added protection wouldn’t be worth the risk of a firearm or stun gun getting into the wrong hands.
With little more than a flashlight, a pair of handcuffs and an alert button to notify other officers, Baxter’s safety largely was at the mercy of those she watched over.
Gone are the days at the Charleston County jail where bars provided separation between guards and inmates.
Blue cots and bolted tables are dispersed throughout the detention center’s wide, spacious units, where inmates can sleep and wander, even up to Baxter if they choose. “This job is not for everybody,” Baxter said. “It’s a constant revolving door.”
Baxter said the thought of having little to protect herself frightened her when she first took on the job, but not anymore. The gritty details amounted to a career that she said she’s come to love.
More and more women are entering the professions of jailer and prison guard.
At a little more than 5 feet tall, most of the jail’s male inmates tower over correctional officer Jamie Ray, 27. The 27-year-old’s small stature isn’t a problem, she said. She can hold her own.
Women take a number of precautions to ensure their safety as guards. Ray said she doesn’t wear necklaces or loose jewelry that could be used to pull or choke her.
“Anything can happen. It could take one second for someone to grab one of us. We can hit our button and a response team will come, but it would take them a little bit to get here. It takes a while to get through these doors,” Ray said.
There are about 43,000 female correctional officers nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s most recent tally. The study found that men still outnumber women in the career by more than 100,000.
Amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other ground-breaking pieces of legislation opened the doors for female correctional officers by exposing prison systems that were operating in an unconstitutional manner, said Kelly Ann Cheeseman, the chairwoman of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.
Cheeseman worked as a correctional officer in Texas and with the Federal Bureau of Prisons before leaving that career to pursue a Ph.D. in criminal justice. She recently wrote the research study “Women Working in Corrections: Where We Have Been and Where We are Going.”
Before the early 1970s, women were allowed to work as guards only in women’s facilities, Cheeseman said. Then cases like Dothard v. Rawlinson in 1977 made it harder for prisons to invoke height and weight requirements as a means of excluding women from employment, she said.
But even in the early days of change, women found themselves relegated to minimal tasks, such as keeping watch from a perimeter tower outside the prison’s walls, thereby keeping them from having direct contact with male inmates.
Gender discrimination at correctional facilities has gradually decreased with time as more women opt to pursue careers in the field, Cheeseman said.
“Opening up opportunities for women at male institutions ultimately changed the face of many prison systems,” Cheeseman said. “Males and females can both do the job equally well, regardless of their gender.”
These days, women account for as many as 70 percent of the guards at some facilities across the nation, Cheeseman said.
That statistic came under scrutiny this year in Maryland after 13 female correctional officers were charged in connection with an alleged corruption scheme that included the smuggling of illegal contraband into the Baltimore City Detention Center. Authorities determined that the misconduct resulted from relationships the women allegedly had with a number of male inmates.
Baxter said inappropriate relationships between guards and inmates are rare, but not unheard of at the Charleston County jail, where women account for about 180 of the facility’s 400 guards.
Women account for 21 of the Berkeley County jail’s 55 correctional officers, Sheriff’s Capt. Rick Ollic said.
The Dorchester County Detention Center boasts a higher percentage with 29 women who are certified correctional officers compared with 34 men, Detention Director Terrance Van Doran said.
Maintaining a fair mix of guards allows the jail to abide by a number of guidelines, including one that ensures that female inmates are searched only by other women, he said.
“The bottom line is we want to provide employment for the people who want to work, whatever their gender,” Van Doran said.
What may attract a woman to oversee the grim and dreary lifestyle of the incarcerated varies from guard to guard.
For 53-year-old Nancy Hill, the decision started out as a bet with her husband, who wasn’t convinced his wife could handle the pressure.
“I’m a woman. He didn’t think I’d have enough guts to do it,” Hill said.
After 14 years on the job, Hill said, it’s safe to say she has proved him wrong.
Hill has guarded male and female units in her time at the Charleston County jail.
Female units often resemble a large family as incarcerated women seek to re-create the nurturing, mother-daughter relationships they’ve left behind on the other side of the jail walls.
The work isn’t as draining as some of the encounters she has experienced while guarding men, Hill said.
For one, women are subjected to “a lot of nudity (by men and women) — a lot of stuff you wouldn’t actually want to see. They can be really perverted.
“I’ve been here so long that it almost sounds like it’s a trivial matter, but it’s really not. We’re supposed to stand there and take it. They say don’t take it personal, just ignore it. It’s part of your job. If you don’t have a thick skin, you might as well find a different position,” Hill said.
The profession has a large turnover when it comes to employees, but the job comes with its perks, Hill said.
“It’s not that bad. It’s a government job, so you get government benefits,” Hill said.
Charleston County spokesman Shawn Smetana said the average salary for a detention officer at the jail is $34,662.07.
Some women take the job as a stepping stone to becoming a police officer. Others discover that being a correctional officer simply isn’t for them.
Ciara Murray said her will as a jail guard was tested the day an inmate threw his urine into her face. Her male partner took over while she recovered from the blow.
“That almost was my last day,” the 23-year-old said.
In the weeks following what she called her worst day on the job, Murray remained perplexed about what could have set the man off.
“I hadn’t done anything to him. He was just upset and took it out on me. That was the only day I seriously thought about getting another job,” which Murray did a few months later, after two years at the jail.
Not all the jail’s male inmates are as confrontational as that. A lot of them treat the female guards with as much dignity and respect as they can, Murray said.
She said, if anything, the encounter served as a reminder to constantly stay on her toes.
“My partner handled the situation the way it needed to be handled. ... When you have a partner, you always know that your partner is going to have your back regardless of the situation,” Murray said.