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Women in the Utah Department of Corrections

Corrections officers in Utah are predominantly male. It’s a job that many believe requires traditionally masculine attributes like brute strength and force.  But less than a quarter of Utah Correction’s officers are female and that statistic does not begin to tell the entire story.

The Utah Corrections officer training program is the same for both men and women. The profession has become significantly more amiable for both sexes using verbal tactics and well-established boundaries between inmates and officers.

“Inmate, I am giving you a direct order to submit to a strip search and to be handcuffed or force will be used. What is your response?” asked Angelina Cervantes in a training exercise. “Go kill yourself,” replied the inmate. “Inmate is non-compliant, force will be used,” Cervantes said.

That’s Angelina Cervantes, as her team prepares to enter an uncooperative inmate’s cell. Cervantes is currently one of over 60 cadets going through training with the Utah Department of Corrections. But she represents something other than just one of 60 cadets. She will soon be one of only 334 certified female correctional officers. That’s out of 1800 certified overall, both male and female.

Robyn Williams, Executive Deputy Director of the Utah Department of Corrections, says women apply for a multitude of reasons. 

“What makes a woman want to do this for a living, I can’t tell you because I think for each one of us it’s something different,” she says. “What I can tell you is a common denominator that I notice in the women that do this for a living and that is we tend to be very strong women.”

Williams began her career with the Department in the same position as Angelina Cervantes. She has been in the profession for more than 15 years. She says the type of women that apply aren’t typically masculine women either.  

“We are not your typical shrinking flowers. That’s not the kind of woman you find doing this for a living. We’re not knuckle dragging, look like men kind of women either. We’re very feminine, look at us,” Williams says. 

Utah Corrections officers don’t carry guns or batons while working inside the prison. The only enforcement tools they carry are OC spray, similar to pepper spray, and handcuffs.

Geri Miller-Fox is the training director for the department. Standing at about 4 foot 10 inches, she says verbal communication is the officer’s primary weapon when dealing with inmates.

“You are always going to find somebody bigger, meaner, or more angry,” she says. “So if you want to go around trying to muscle your way through life, somebody will take the challenge. It doesn’t even make sense to think that’s how we’re going to deal with things in the prison. We’re going to lose, if that’s the way we approach things.”

Captain Sharon Damico has been with the department for 15 years.  Now a seasoned veteran, she doesn’t work inside the prisons anymore, but she says she never felt out of place in her time as a corrections officer.

“When I first came down, I had to set my boundaries right up front,” she says. “That was the first thing I did, set the boundaries. You know, what the inmates could expect from me.”

Billy Luke has been a training coordinator with the Utah Department of Corrections for almost two years. He says stereotypes sometimes do arise, but they don’t usually amount to much of anything.

“You get that stereotypical, you know, the female officer has to be the burley, tough, almost a man to fit in, and that’s not the case," says Luke. "They bring in a feminine side of things and it works.”

Before potential officers can be considered for a position, they must pass a medical and physical fitness test, a psych exam, an academic related exam and an interview. Luke says there is no real significant difference with how the males or females perform on these screening procedures. But they do sometimes see a difference once training classes begin.

“A lot of times the class will joke that they’re the mother of the class, but they don’t necessarily take on that role," says Luke. "A lot of them end up becoming leaders in the class.”

Whether it’s becoming leaders in the class or bucking the stereotype of a knuckle-dragging female corrections officer, the career is one that is open to both sexes. It allows for females to succeed and work their way up through the department despite a male majority. 

While women make up less than 25% of the corrections officers currently working in the department, the careers of Robyn Williams, Sharon Damico and Geri Miller-Fox showcase that women play an important role in the leadership and culture of the department, and that the influence of women in the Utah Department of Corrections continues to grow.

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