By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Cherry smiles. She likes success stories, and this is what she chooses to tell about her first tough months as warden at Goree. But former warden Bonnie Bond is a little more forthcoming about the obstacles she met. Looking back, Bond says that more than any one assignment, it was the demeanor of some male officials that showed their hostility. When Bond was a guard at Eastham in the mid-1980s, she considered occasional shower duty or strip searches part of her responsibilities; what nagged at her was what could only be called the prurience of the first Eastham warden that she worked for. She remembers with distaste his public pronouncements forbidding her and the one other woman guard from sending underwear or "feminine type clothing" to the prison laundry that washed the officers' clothes.
A new warden came in a year later and suggested the same policy more tactfully. "But he was a very progressive warden," Bond says. "It was more, 'you may not want to,' not that you won't ... he was the one who decided we do strip searches, and showers, but he called us in and said, 'These are the things that are going to happen: if you do strip searches, the inmates are going to make obscene remarks and catcall.' He was matter of fact about it."
Andy Collins, TDCJ's executive director, explains bluntly, "The agency was reluctant to allow females in male institutions, because of the idea they wouldn't be able to defend themselves." And, he admits, "I guess I was like a Bubba in the '70s. I guess if you'd asked me, I'd have said it was a horrible idea, it'd never work."
What changed his mind was experience. "If you'd arbitrarily put women into management ranks" it would have failed, he says; the corrections community wouldn't have gone through the crucial, gradual process of seeing women such as Cherry and Cockrell gather skills and work experience.
The same process appears to have happened among the inmates as well. In 1989, an angry inmate named Albert Aranda and 100 others filed a suit alleging that strip searches by female officers violated their civil rights. But the Texas District Court overruled the complaint, instead simply advocating more training and discretion. Women guards, often as leery of strip searches as the inmates, nevertheless saw the decision for what it was: a chance for a whole generation of women to get the training they needed to progress to the top of the system.
From behind his Plexiglas visitation window at the Walls Unit, inmate David Hargrove says that the female guards that he's seen have taken that opportunity and run with it. And while gender differences in prison always create tension, Hargrove says, male inmates have adapted amazingly well to women officials. Today, folk wisdom around prisons holds that women actually have a calming effect on male inmates -- and Victorian though it may seem, the theory is true, Hargrove says.
Round-faced and red-haired, Hargrove edits TDCJ's inmate newspaper, The Echo, and takes pride in his close observations of prison culture. "Once they started letting women in contact security positions, it became a whole new ball game for inmates," he recalls. "I went to a California unit for four years, and when I came back in 1988, I was amazed at the transition."
That's not to say that no male inmates balk at female guards. Today, some prisoners still try to rattle women guards doing video security sweeps by taunting them and masturbating while in the shower.
"And there's always that constant sexual tension," Hargrove adds. "There's no way you're going to have men working with female inmates, or vice versa, and not have feelings develop somewhere. There are a lot of guys that try to take advantage of a female officer."
In the vast majority of cases, though, says Hargrove, what's striking about women wardens and guards is how similar their performance is to that of men.
Is Neva Yarbrough, striding through the sad, cheese-colored light of Luther's dormitories, somehow using skills specific to her gender? Yarbrough herself doesn't trust generalizations, and thinks it over carefully before she says simply, "I don't know. There are so many different management styles among men and women both."
But Ray Hill, a prison activist and former inmate who has strolled Pack 2's halls with Yarbrough, thinks the answer is yes.
"I remember walking across the bullpen with her a few years ago," Hill says. "She was playing what I call 'the role' -- swaggering and chewing tobacco. But I noticed that inmates kept coming up and asking her if they could speak with me, the visitor. In the old days, if you dared to do that, the warden would take you aside when the visitor was gone and beat the shit out of you. But that walk with Neva Yarbrough told me that she was not retributive, and she was approachable to inmates."
Dr. Laura Myers, a criminologist at Sam Houston State University, thinks that such willingness to communicate could change the whole TDCJ culture if the number of women wardens keeps growing. "I think there are masculine ways of handling conflict, and feminine ways," Myers says. "The feminine way is to bring people together and mediate. A lot of women are masculine in the way they handle conflict, and a lot of men can have these feminine traits."