By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
"Primarily women could work in the picket tower, the highway pickets and the mobile control car," Bond recalls. "I guess the biggest thing to get your feathers ruffled was that you weren't allowed to go into the chow hall to get cobbler or hot coffee."
Linda Moten, now a warden at Gatesville, was less sanguine. A women's correctional officer who stayed on at Goree when it changed from a women's to a men's unit in 1981, Moten was one of TDCJ's first female guards at a male facility. Suddenly, after six years at Goree, Moten found herself forbidden to work inside the building.
"I could go to the front offices and to the mail room," Moten says. "Yeah, it did bother me. I wanted to know more about my job ... but at the time young females working with male inmates was just not the norm. I thought, I'm going to look for advancement -- for a different job, where I felt more needed."
Yet Moten says complaining about the gender segregation just wasn't her style. It's something of a paradox: Moten and her fellow women wardens were pioneers, but they also tended not to rock the boat. "I've been through a lot; I have a lot of battle scars. I had no problem thinking I could work for men," Moten says. "But I know that I never got angry about it. I was more determined. I had the ambition that if they ever ask me, I'll do it. I didn't make any waves about it or anything."
"Have you ever walked into a tough prison unit and heard the doors shut behind you? It's a really -- well, it's a strange feeling," says Luther Warden Neva Yarbrough, bunching her shoulders for a moment. "It's like, you're there. You can't walk away."
Yarbrough, an athletic looking woman in pink denim pants and a boxy Oxford shirt, is not someone who scares easily. A ten year veteran of the Palestine police department, Yarbrough personally locked up a good many of the inmates now in her charge at this all male, 1,316-man unit. But if she's not easily spooked, she's also profoundly alert about danger. You can see it in her bright dark eyes, and an almost imperceptible muscle jump about her mouth that suggests she's thinking of a lot besides her friendly discourse on prison history.
Most of all, she adds, she doesn't fool herself that she's as physically strong as a man. "That's a hard subject," Yarbrough says slowly. "I could go out there, get assaulted just like my correctional officers. You go into a situation and utilize your training. I'd be foolish to say I could overpower an inmate."
Instead, Yarbrough and her fellow women wardens seem to have internalized the lessons of the Carrasco incident: in a prison, violence is always possible. "In a one-on-one incident, I don't think an assaultive inmate is thinking much about your sex," Yarbrough says. "In administrative segregation, they'll throw feces and urine on women just as well as men."
Equally pragmatic, Gatesville's Moten says, "When I branch off to go to a dormitory or into the kitchen alone, you can tell [the staff] thinks, 'She could get hurt!' That's my job."
Even Dessie Cherry, visually the incarnation of the cool, bureaucratic TDCJ ideal, says she's always ready to use the skills she first honed as a prison guard in her early 20s. And she can do it, Officer Hosea says. He's seen her.
Three years ago, the deranged ex-husband of a Goree guard began to stalk his wife. One day he appeared at the officer barracks located outside the unit walls and began to prowl Goree with a gun. The moment Cherry heard what was happening, Hosea recalls, she hurried to the barracks to investigate.
"The captain and I walked over to one side of the building, and Warden Cherry on the other side alone," Hosea recalls. She was unarmed. "And I got to thinking, what if that guy has a gun? If I had been a woman there's no way I would have walked over in that building not knowing what that guy is going to do."
The fears were justified; two weeks later, the ex-husband defied a restraining order and shot both his wife and himself. Today, when asked about the incident, Cherry employs another survival skill, one that she also used to cope with her predecessor's disapproval and the doubts of her male colleagues. "You don't like to remember," she says of the tragedy that shook the whole Goree staff.
She does remember, though, a day last year when someone rapped on her office door. Cherry was surprised to see it was a captain on her staff who had hardly acknowledged her since she arrived. She was even more surprised at his request.
"Can this be a harmony visit?" the captain asked awkwardly.
Harmony visits, Cherry explains, are informal one-on-one visits she's offered her staff ever since her years directing Goree's mental health division. They're a definite post-Ruiz innovation, and, say people who know her, a Dessie Cherry management trademark. The captain who'd rapped on her door scarcely seemed the harmony type, but when he came into her office, he announced that he wanted to apologize. Cherry had proven herself as a warden, the captain said, and from now on he'd support her.