Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Women Officers Working in Men's Prisons

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Women Officers Working in Men's Prisons

Article excerpt


New Zealand was a late starter in the international trend towards employing female prison officers to work in men's prisons. Even after the first such officer was appointed in 1985, resistance to the idea continued in some quarters. This paper examines the recent history of New Zealand women's involvement in men's prisons and the debates that ensued. As will be seen, the fears of male prison officers that inmates would endanger women's safety proved largely unfounded, and the principal obstacle to women's integration was not the inmates but some officers themselves. Nonetheless, certain issues, particularly the risk of females entering into inappropriate relationships with their male charges, remain. The paper discusses the advantages and disadvantages of having women officers working in a front-line capacity with male prison inmates, and how some of the problems have been addressed.


Although New Zealand prides itself on being the first country in the world to grant women the vote (1893), it was relatively late in integrating women into some employment areas, such as law enforcement and prisons. By 1914 most large cities in North America, as well as many European cities, had appointed female constables, but it was 1941, following intense lobbying from women's organisations, before the first female constables were appointed in New Zealand (Butler et al. 2003:304). In prisons, likewise, female correctional officers were restricted to women's institutions until relatively late.

It was the United States that led the revolution which introduced women to male prisons. Until 1972 only two states--Virginia and Idaho--employed women as correctional officers in male institutions (Simon and Simon 1993:227). However, in 1972 congressional amendments to the Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act extended the prohibition on employment on the basis of sex from the private sector to the state sector, thus opening the door for women to work in all areas of corrections (Farkas and Rand 1997:995-6).

The 1972 amendments led to a spate of litigation which challenged the application of the new law. The most significant early decision was the 1977 case of Dothard v. Rawlinson, where the US Supreme Court ruled that in some circumstances--in this case where the security of an institution might be compromised--employment could be denied on the basis of sex. Some male inmates also opposed the employment of women on the ground that their personal privacy might be violated. In the outcome, apart from Alabama (to which Dothard related), no other state has successfully applied the ruling, and inmate privacy lawsuits have resulted in various compromises between inmates' privacy rights and the right to equal employment (Zimmer 1989). Thus, women officers gained an increasing presence in prisons catering for males. By 1978, 33 states had commenced assigning women to men's institutions (Jurik 1985:377), and by 1981 all but four state correctional systems had done so, with women comprising 6% of all staff in male prisons (Britton 2003:32-34, Farrell 2003:202, Zupan 1992:325-327). As the trend continued, by 1999 23.5% of the more than 200,000 staff working in US correctional facilities were female (Maillicoat 2005:190), and by the early 2000s 80% of all female correctional employees in the United States were working in male institutions (Zupan 2003:288).

Not until 1985, following the example of Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States, all of which had begun employing women officers in men's prisons from at least the mid-1970s (Farnworth 1992, Lashlie 2002:29), did New Zealand assign its first female officer to a male prison. As we shall see, the processes by which this transformation took place and the issues it created were similar to those that arose in America and elsewhere. This paper traces the progress of women's employment in New Zealand men's prisons and examines some of the debates that have come out of it. …

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