Women have historically been underrepresented in law enforcement careers. The Washington State Department of Corrections’ communications team recently did an analysis of how many of its employees are women (39.5%) and interviewed two women who have worked in corrections for more than 20 years about the challenges they’ve faced on the job and advantages women can bring to law enforcement careers.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the Washington State Department of Corrections’ website.
March is Women’s History Month. Since 1995, United States presidents have issued annual proclamations for this month, to celebrate contributions women have made in American history and recognizing their achievements.
Women have had an important impact in shaping Washington state’s correctional system, even though the field of corrections is a heavily male-dominated career field.
A total of 346,000 people in America worked as correctional officers in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 31.7% of those jobs were held by women. And only 27.7% of about 5,100 first line supervisors of correctional officers in the US were held by women.
By comparison, the Washington State Department of Corrections employs 4,471 corrections and community corrections officers. Of those, 23.1% are female. As of Feb. 15, 2021, the Department of Corrections employed 683 people who were supervisors of correctional officers (this includes officers not working in prison settings). Of those, 152 (22.2%) were female.
Agency-wide, women make up 39.5% of Washington Corrections employees.
Women’s Historical Influence on Washington Corrections
One woman whose influence is widely-known in Washington Corrections was Edna Lucille Goodrich. Goodrich began her career as a teacher and became was the first superintendent of the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. Goodrich was recognized as a national leader in corrections. The Department of Corrections’ Headquarters building in Tumwater is named after her.
The agency also continues to be a leader for gender-responsive programming for incarcerated women. It’s one of only 12 correctional systems in the country with a residential parenting program (pdf). The agency incorporates gender-response protocols in every aspect of its correctional practices, from intake to shaping its programs around substance abuse and mental health treatment. And last year, its community corrections division launched virtual gender-responsive health and wellness reentry courses for work release residents.
Challenges Women Face
Women can face many challenges in the field of corrections, according to a 2017 report by the Management Training Corporation, Women Professionals in Corrections: A Growing Asset (pdf). The report said even after achieving a position in senior leadership, women reported feeling like they have to perform at a higher level than male peers to be viewed as successful.
Despite the challenge’s women face, the report pointed to ways managers can support women and change work culture to support a more diverse workforce, such as training on equity and inclusion. It also said that having more women in leadership roles and having mentoring programs in place, will help make corrections a more inclusive work environment.
“The enlightenment of female leaders within the corrections environment and how male staff are coached and encouraged, with respect to women in their workforce, can lead to changes in attitude, thinking processes and behaviors,” according to the report. “Creating an environment where it is acceptable to be different, speak your mind and to have your opinions listened to is a tremendous step forward in some organizations management philosophy and organizational culture. Many corrections professionals acknowledge that there are strong people out there, both men and women, who are going to succeed regardless of the circumstances. However, in the corrections environment, with the attributes that women bring, specifically collaboration, communication, and empathy, women have not been traditionally valued.”
To celebrate Women’s History Month and recognize the valuable skills women bring to the Washington State Department of Corrections, DOC Communications interviewed a correctional captain and a community corrections supervisor about overcoming gender disparities and lessons learned as they progressed throughout their careers.
Name: Arminda Miller
Current Job and Facility/Worksite: Correctional Captain at Washington Corrections Center, Currently Deployed to Department’s Emergency Operations Center serving as a liaison officer
Employed with DOC Since: 1998
Name: Stacy Fitzgerald
Employed with DOC Since: 1999
Current Job and Facility/Worksite: Community Corrections Supervisor, Ratcliff House Work Release
Employed With DOC Since: 1998
What positions or special teams have you had or served on in Washington State Department of Corrections?
Arminda Miller: Correctional Officer, Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Training and Development Instructor and Writer. Special Teams 1999-Current. (Emergency Response Team, Critical Incident Stress Management, Honor Guard, Department Incident Management Team. Not all at the same time but on a team for the entire duration)
Stacy Fitzgerald: Fugitive Warrants Unit (interned), Community Corrections Officer, Risk Management Specialist, Work/Training Release Supervisor
What made you choose corrections as a career?
Arminda Miller: I wanted to work in a field that allowed many options to help others and learn throughout the career. The Washington State Department of Corrections offers different opportunities on a regular basis.
Stacy Fitzgerald: Looking back I realize I became interested in human behavior when I was young. I wondered why people would continue to make decisions that would continuously get themselves into trouble or why people would choose not to tell the truth over and over again.
When I got older, I thought I wanted to become a police officer until I was in college. One of my professors was a retired probation officer with the Department of Corrections. I was near graduation and needed an internship, so he was able to assist me in securing an internship with the DOC fugitive warrants unit. Working in this capacity, I learned the roles correctional staff play in community corrections, which are law enforcement and social worker.
I realized I could learn more about an individual’s behavior in community corrections than any other field because a community corrections officer gets to know the person’s behavior that sent them to jail/prison, and who they are when released.
I stayed in the field because over the years I learned the deeper reasoning behind poor decision-making turned criminal behavior and how so many environmental factors play a role in one’s life. It wasn’t until I was 10 years into my career and working at an all-female Work Release that I became passionate about incarcerated women’s issues and the importance of gender response in the correctional setting.
Have you encountered any gender-based micro-aggressions or discriminations in your career, and how have you overcome them?
Arminda Miller: Sure I have. I don’t much have an issue confronting these things as they arise and confronting them doesn’t have to be confrontational. Ignoring these things typically doesn’t result in them stopping.
Stacy Fitzgerald: Yes, but I’ve never let it define me or my path. I’ve been fortunate in that, for the most part I’ve been surrounded by great co-workers throughout my career.
What do you enjoy most about working in corrections?
Arminda Miller: There is always something to do and its meaningful work. There are also a lot of really great people who work in this agency. This work is never boring to me.
Stacy Fitzgerald: I enjoy working with the women because I know they need strong supporters for their rights and needs. I’m proud to work in the Reentry Division at a work release that teaches women how to be prosocial individuals in the community.
I’ve always enjoyed this work. Right now though, I also really enjoy the people I work with; the team work and comradery, that comes with the job we do. We are all in it for the same reasons and that is to help these women be successful in the community.
What advice do you have for women who may be interested in a career in corrections?
Arminda Miller: Focus your energy around your work performance, this will garner credibility and respect. One may be able to charm themselves into a place but that falls short in time, it’s the performance that keeps them there or causes them to be invited back.
Stacy Fitzgerald: I encourage women to follow a career path in corrections. There are many opportunities depending on one’s interest. Corrections needs women who have healthy boundaries, capable of empathy, understand punishment and more importantly behavior. I have found DOC to be a very equal opportunity employer which is great for females interested in a correctional career.
Corrections, as is with many law enforcement fields, have historically been male dominated industries. What advantages do women bring to corrections?
Arminda Miller: Without being overly gender specific, healthy interactions for some of the people who we are responsible for are needed. We get an opportunity to display what that looks like and potentially allow others to see that healthy relationships include boundaries. Someone once shared with me that we have an opportunity to shape our neighbors, as most incarcerated will release, what kind of neighbor are you trying to shape?
Stacy Fitzgerald: Women tend to bring different viewpoints to corrections. Diversity is important anywhere, but particularly in corrections because in corrections it’s important to keep an open mind no matter what your role is or who you are working with, whether they’re male, female, or LGBTQ+.