Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Prison Warden's Job: A 'Mentor Monday' Report

Today’s blog post provides a look at a past Sisters in Crime Mentor Monday conversation with Ms. Tekla Dennison Miller (pictured at left), former warden of a men’s maximum security prison and a women’s maximum/close custody prison near Detroit. She is a national speaker on women’s issues and criminal justice and the author of two memoirs – The Warden Wore Pink and A Bowl of Cherries – and two novels – Life Sentences and Inevitable Sentences.

The complete Mentor Monday session can be found archived on the SinC listserv. If you are writing about prisons, this file offers some extraordinary detail in terms of warden insights, sociological perspective, prison employee and prisoner motivation, substance abuse issues in prisons, statistics and additional resources for more information.

Access to the listserv is a Sisters in Crime membership benefit. For information about the listserv, go to

Below are a handful of questions and answers from the day’s session:

Q: How does a woman maintain control over a group of male prisoners Is being female a plus or a minus in that situation?

A: Sadly, I – as most women working in prisons – had more difficulty with the male staff than the prisoners. Although great strides have been made by women in this field, corrections remains the most gender-biased, sex-segregated and male-dominated component of the criminal justice system.

I encountered this when I became the warden of the men’s maximum security prison. The male deputy warden, my subordinate, told me that no woman should or can run a men’s max. Also several male employees felt like they had been demoted because they had to work for a woman warden.

… Of course, not all the men who worked in the prison felt that way. Some even were glad that I came aboard because the culture changed to a more tolerant one for everyone. This brought about less violence. Those who just couldn’t work for me I helped transfer to other prisons. By the time I retired, the men working at the facility asked me to stay.

As for the inmates, a study done in the mid-90s showed that the presence of women working in a men’s prison reduced assaults against employees and other inmates.

Q: If this [location and setting] isn’t realistic, could you tell me why and make a suggestion as to how to still get her dead as needed within the confines of typical prison routine?

A: In your scenario, having the victim in an isolated area is realistic. Sadly, many assaults take place in the bathrooms. Even more take place on the yard when the attack is obscured by all the other prisoners milling around. The shank normally used in the attack is usually dropped on the ground once the prints are wiped from the handle. That way, no one can identify who had the shank or who assaulted the victim. Too many inmates present and no prints.

Q: I frequently drive past both the private prison, Corrections of America, and the U.S. federal prison in Leavenworth. I’m curious, what determines whether a convict is sent to one or the other?

A: Corrections Corporation of America is the largest company that builds and manages prisons for corrections in both states and federal systems. They also manage the largest prison transportation system.

Private prisons became popular when the number of prison beds available could not keep up with the incarceration rates. Not all states have private prisons. However, most are medium custody or lower. Each corrections department develops a contract that controls how the private prison will be managed.

Q: … We had an escape a few years ago that was a bit of a comedy of errors. The friend who had arranged to pick up the escapee on the highway near the hospital got pulled over for drunk driving, so didn’t make it. The guy jacked a car (luckily not hurting anyone) and drove to Kansas City. When he saw himself on TV, he asked the bartender to turn it down. He’s back inside now.

A: In regard to the escape and comedy of errors, this is not uncommon. One case I know of is – when an armed robber approached a bank teller and demanded money, the teller asked for ID, stating it was policy. The robber showed her his ID. Another robber was found because he left a trail of candy (he also stole) wrappers.

Q: Do women end up in prison because of abuse situations in their lives?

A: Most of the women in prison who have committed murder are there because they have murdered their abuser. Defense attorneys and many judges are trying to change the way we handle/prosecute such cases. But little has changed. Physical or sexual abuse statistics are below:

57% report being abused
69% of those reporting said the abuse occurred before they were 18
Most were abused by male members of the immediate family or a partner
56% committed a crime to please an abusive partner
45% committed a crime to get drugs for an abusing partner

Women prisoners basically see no hope in their lives and feel they either deserve a life of abuse or that there is no alternative.


Background Check said...

Being a prison warden is not an easy job and it requires a lot of skills, determination, and perseverance to make things in order inside each prison cell and the whole building.

She Wrote said...

Having worked in a mens max. security for several years and then as a parole agent specialist, I can attest to the accuracy of the Warden's remarks. However, I'm not sure there are as many program opportunities in the private prisons. Rehabilitation & voc/educ programs are the only hope for preventing recidivism for many inmates.