By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Those cases enabled women such as Cherry to work firsthand with male inmates -- the vast majority of the prison population -- and to finally qualify for wardenships of male units when then-governor Ann Richards pushed the system to open to women and minorities at the very top.
But even before the confluence of court cases, it took one of the prison system's great disasters to snap administrators into seeing two things: that they could never protect women wholly from violence, and that under the worst circumstances, women could be as effective as men.
The time was 1974, and Linda Woodman was working as a librarian in a Huntsville prison. She was so insulated from male inmates that she once joined a tour of visiting dignitaries just to see more of the Walls Unit, where she worked. Before that, Woodman had never seen any part of the prison other than the hall from the front door and the library.
But her isolation made no difference when a convicted drug dealer named Fred Gomez Carrasco burst into the prison library waving a gun. Backed by two other inmates, he swept Woodman, her female colleagues and leaders of the prison into a 19-member clutch of hostages. Using Woodman and her colleagues as bargaining chips, Carrasco held out for 11 days against authorities. On the ninth day, Carrasco sent Woodman out with a message. Two days later, he tried to leave surrounded with hostages. But his plan failed. Authorities tried to knock him down with water from a fire hose; when that didn't work, an exchange of gunfire began. Carrasco and one hostage, a woman, were killed; another female hostage was mortally wounded. The affair left Texas stunned and TDCJ's administrators stricken with guilt and confusion.
In a bizarre way, the disaster opened up prison work for women as nothing else could, Woodman says. She should know: a few years after the incident, she was named an assistant warden at a women's prison. Then, in 1979, Woodman became the first woman ever to direct a male prison population in Texas. Although women still couldn't formally manage male units, Woodman spent two years overseeing a male crew as it built facilities for a new prison.
The way Woodman sees it, that probably wouldn't have been possible without the Carrasco incident.
"In the beginning, a lot of men who objected so much to women working in prisons said, 'See what happened. I told you so,'" she recalls. "But there were many men involved in this, too. And it wouldn't have mattered if everyone up there had been men. That situation was going to happen anyway, because of that particular inmate." In the soul-searching that followed the shootings some of the most dubious administrators had to agree -- and to admire Woodman's stamina during the siege.
The Carrasco incident didn't fully abate male officers' fear that a woman guard or warden is more vulnerable to assault in a men's unit than a male employee would be. Women wardens in male prisons still report that their colleagues follow them around in potentially dangerous areas. But somehow the shock of the Carrasco disaster was the first suggestion that tragedy is to some extent gender-oblivious -- and that women working in prisons can prove very tough.
If Carrasco shook traditional views of women employees, it took Janie Cockrell, the first woman to be warden of a men's prison, to demonstrate that women could manage men's prisons full-time. Cockrell, a veritable legend among her fellow wardens, firmly believes that women bring special skills to prison management. She also understands why, for years, the TDCJ had no interest in seeing those skills at work. "The Southern man is still very protective of women," Cockrell says, "and we appreciate that."
That tolerance, and her exquisite discretion with it, have been the hallmarks of Cockrell's career. A tall woman with long, dark hair, known to enjoy a chew of tobacco, Cockrell is renowned in the prison community for both her brains and her extraordinary strength in adversity. Those traits became famous in 1990, when she took over the maximum security Beto 2 men's unit in Palestine.
Cockrell was experienced: she'd joined the system as a corrections officer while still studying criminology at Sam Houston University in Huntsville. Later, she became assistant warden at the Gatesville women's unit, and by the time she was moved to Palestine, she says, she had a lot of support from top prison officials. "They knew that I could do that job and I could do it well," she says. All the same, Cockrell admits, "I was under a lot of pressure. I knew I was being looked at."
Her combination of grit and expertise proved potent. "To run a maximum security prison, you have to have what I call the dinosaurs," says Selden Hale, prison board chairman under former governor Ann Richards. "They used to be the old white men who were there before Ruiz. But you don't have to be a man to be a dinosaur. Janie Cockrell, she's one. She came up through the ranks. She understands that you have to run a clean institution before you can rehabilitate people .... There's not any lace on her prison uniform. She's not scared to go in a cell block, not scared to discipline staff or inmates."