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It's lunchtime in Huntsville's Goree prison unit, and the warden wants to see the cafeteria. Goree, which holds about 1,000 inmates, is a prison-world showcase: airy, renovated, with masses of windows and the best food in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Goree also went co-ed last year, making it somewhat unusual among Texas prisons, although you wouldn't know that at first glance in the dining hall, where a hodgepodge of male bodies slouch in white shirts and white stretch pants while awaiting their meal. Male and female inmates may live in the same building, but that doesn't mean that they mix.
Still, there is something a little out of the ordinary about this scene. Not among the inmates, but among the staff -- specifically, the warden, whose air is crisp and tailored, more like that of an executive than the pit-bull stereotype familiar from the movies. No khakis, no big hat, no big boots, no big voice. No towering male presence. In fact, no male presence at all. Goree's warden is, instead, a woman, one of a handful of female wardens in the Texas prison system, and one of an even smaller handful who run facilities that house male inmates.
A coolly commanding African-American in her late 40s, Dessie Cherry stands calmly alone as inmates and officers greet her with a mixture of warmth and gingerness. "How are you, Cap?" she says, as prisoners file past her with putty-hued trays. "How are you, Sarge?"
Suddenly, a guard, an intense-looking man with a clamp-like mouth and burning hazel eyes, fixes his stare on a guest the warden has brought with her. "You're writing about Warden Cherry?" he asks urgently, motioning for the newcomer to step closer. Then in a rush he declares, "I'm George Hosea. I've been working in the system ten years and seven months, and Warden Cherry's probably one of the best.
"I was used to male wardens, used to being cussed at and yelled at," he adds. "It's like they have to play that role in order to protect themselves. Weakness will get you killed in this environment, I don't care who you are. Warden Cherry, though, is educated. She's a Christian lady, she speaks real soft.
"But let me tell you," says Hosea, eyes blazing. "She swings a big bat."
Swinging a big bat, with all its nuances, was a Texas prison ideal long before Warden Dessie Cherry was born. As far back as the turn of the century, inmates were worrying about the warden's bat, a strap used for the system's routine whippings. Size, texture and dimensions of the bat were carefully laid out by law.
The phrase gained new currency, though, during the reign of former prison director George Beto. Faced with a 1954 work stoppage at one of his units, Beto, according to legend, waded into the crowd of angry inmates waving a Bible in one hand and a baseball bat in the other. The old-fashioned icons of discipline did their job, and the inmates went back to work.
That was in the days when swinging a big bat also meant, above all else, being male. Despite a number of lawsuits stretching back to the late 1970s, it's only in the last few years that the bat has passed into some female hands. Soon, that number may grow even more: over the next ten months, the Texas prison system will complete a manic building spree, part of a massive expansion begun in 1992 to ease overcrowding. When the construction ends, TDCJ will have room for 50,000 new inmates -- and will need 11,000 new employees to guard and care for them. Among those new employees will be 16 new wardens. Already, says TDCJ Executive Director Andy Collins, the prison department is eyeing potential hires, and several of the early picks are women. Since 1990, in fact, the number of female wardens in TDCJ has leapt from three to 11 -- almost one-fifth of the entire, 58-warden cadre. Five years ago, Warden Janie Cockrell was the system's first -- and only -- woman to run a men's prison. Today, four women wardens, among them Dessie Cherry, manage facilities for men.
The planned addition of 50,000 new inmates has already helped reshape the Texas prison system, and now it's suspected that so many new wardens could change the character of prison management as well. Although there's no scientific proof, many in Texas' penal community argue that women wardens such as Dessie Cherry have already distinctly altered the individual prisons they work in. Could it be that if TDCJ keeps hiring women wardens at the same pace, they might alter the very culture of Texas prisons? Or will the system, instead, simply absorb and remold its female bosses?
Dessie Cherry took over management of Goree in 1989 when her predecessor, a burly man nicknamed Big Iron, retired. By that time it had been more than ten years since the lawsuit that began opening doors for women was filed. That was the massive 1978 Ruiz case, which forced the prison system to begin modernizing. Five years later, in 1982, a case filed by a woman guard named K.K. Coble resulted in a court ruling that 14 percent of TDCJ's employees be female. Despite that ruling, though, it would take six years, and a failed class-action lawsuit by inmates objecting to strip searches by women, to ensure women access to every job in men's prisons.
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