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One of Cockrell's first moves at Beto 2 sent that message clearly. As soon as she arrived, a famously vicious inmate who had figured prominently in the Ruiz case began threatening to attack her. The inmate boasted that he wouldn't tolerate a prison with a female warden. The inmate's record made the statements plausible, so as soon as she came to Beto 2, Cockrell called the inmate to her office and asked if the reports on him were true. He bluntly confirmed them. So Cockrell, her major and her captain promptly handcuffed the man and put him into administrative segregation: a solitary cell. He stayed there the entire year that Cockrell worked at Beto 2.
To some, Cockrell's actions could seem shocking. Wasn't such harshness what Ruiz was supposed to reform, and the antithesis of the mediating style often credited to women wardens? But prison community members, who speak of Cockrell with a respect verging on reverence, say that that one decision -- which broke no rules of procedure -- is what established Beto's new, female warden as a serious force.
A Texas researcher who works closely with the TDCJ (and for this reason asked not to be named), puts it this way: "It's basically how a male warden would have handled it. I think the people around her would have anticipated that a female warden would have called up Austin and asked what to do."
"I know that's what she had to do to get the respect of the inmates and the administration both," the researcher adds. "If the inmates get wind that the guards are upset, she goes down. It's because of the traditional nature of the system. She possibly would not need to do that today -- because she now has the control and respect."
To get into the minimum-to-medium security O.L. Luther unit in Navasota, about 45 minutes outside of Houston, you have to make your way past a daunting brick tower called a picket. A guard calls asking your business, and then for your driver's license, before lowering a small canvas bag on a rope. Then, tucking your identification card into its battered pocket and squinting upward, you watch the tattered bag slowly ascend toward the tower. At Luther, where model inmates tend glowing, hyper-fertilized lawns, the canvas bag seems left over from days when monks dropped alms from abbey windows. The perception has some truth to it. Although Texas prisons have transformed in recent years, the ancient divisions over authority, access and control are still what running prisons is all about.
The divisions were far harsher 15 years ago. For decades, the TDCJ was known for its low maintenance costs, and its violence. A powerful subculture of white, male guards defined the prisons' workings. Grossly outnumbered by inmates, the guards reinforced their ranks with prisoners called building tenders who received special privileges for policing and informing on the rest of the population. Carrying weapons and being free to brutalize other inmates were simply two of the privileges.
Women, it went without saying, were unwelcome. Although they'd always staffed the tiny female prisons, it was unheard of for a female to be a guard, much less a warden, at units housing men. Then inmate David Ruiz filed his suit. By the time the reforms flowing from the Ruiz case were under way, a confluence of events had drawn hundreds of women employees into the system. For one thing, building tenders were abolished. With no inmate guards, and court orders to expand, the system that pre-Ruiz had 132 staffers for each 1,000 inmates was forced to almost triple its staff.
TDCJ desperately needed employees, and women were among those hired to take up the slack. And under Ruiz, prison work itself began to change.
"The system went from a totalitarian, Southern, brutality mode to a bureaucratic, humane, constitutional one," says former board chairman Hale. The result -- aside from oceans of paperwork that still aggravate wardens today -- was a system where physical strength was suddenly less crucial. Wardens had to be administrators; guards needed problem-solving skills. And the more women officials there were, the more that bureaucratic approach got reinforced.
But even if women were working at men's prisons, they saw little of male inmates. Then K.K. Coble's equal opportunity case was finally settled, forcing the TDCJ to hire even more female officers, and to assign them to male prisons. The female guards still had to stay out of contact with all male prisoners, though. Only a 1988 modification of the Coble ruling "de-sexed" the system and theoretically opened all jobs to women.
That ruling enraged many. Both inmates and some male guards began resisting in various ways, sometimes purposely assigning women to guard shower areas or to perform strip searches. To be fair, some officers assigned women these tasks out of a zeal for compliance (today, prison policy dictates that tasks such as these be performed by same sex officers -- at both men's and women's prisons -- whenever possible). But the result was a clumsy commingling of the sexes. When Bonnie Bond, today TDCJ's agricultural programs director, first started guard work at the all-male Eastham unit in 1983, the adjustments for the unit's two women guards ranged from awkward to absurd. The Coble case was still in limbo, and women guards were still rare.
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