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.
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."
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.
"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.
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."
With more women wardens, Myers believes, some will automatically absorb the traits that they saw in their male mentors. At the same time, "with more women in the system, rather than seeing so many grievances and lawsuits, you'll see more mediated conflict," Myers predicts. "The warden of a unit characterizes the whole institution."
TDCJ Executive Director Andy Collins, though, is less comfortable with broad gender theories. What will affect prisons much more than the shifting sexual makeup of the prison system's wardens, Collins thinks, are the procedures that Ruiz set up for all prison management, male and female. Inmate Hargrove concurs. "The worst problems in the prison system are race and gangs," he says. "Those are problems that originate outside, and the leadership of women is not going to have an impact on either."
But women's interpersonal skills, in any case, are perfectly learnable. In fact, you could argue that the TDCJ's real prototype for a woman warden was male.
"Warden Howard Sublett was the warden of the geriatric and disabled unit known as the 'broke-dick' farm," Hill remembers with a fond smile. "Serving time under him in the 1950s and 1960s was like serving under a nurturing parent." Sublett was the safest man in the prison, too. In a full-blown riot, Hill avers, Sublett could walk into a mass of men and they would part to hear him speak. Though he retired long before the Ruiz case started, Sublett's secret was said to be that he treated his inmates decently, and even counseled them long before those ideas ever surfaced in state prison management.
"The inmates all respected him," Hill says. "His nickname was 'Mama' Sublett."
Dessie Cherry walks firmly through the damp dirt to look through the bars. One day old, a sand-colored foal hugs his mother's side and furtively blinks back. This is one of the high points of Cherry's day, the apex of her rounds across the dormitories, through the trusty barracks where inmates who work outside the unit sleep, and through the cafeteria. Like Neva Yarbrough, Cherry grew up on a farm, and the sight of Goree's four newborn foals is a delight she's been anticipating all morning.
Goree's horse farm, which supplies animals to all the prison systems in the state, wraps the unit in a pastoral glory that must be painful to any inmates peeping out. On the five-minute drive to Goree's stables, wild azalea bushes dissolve into a bluebonnet field, and finally give way to a dense grove of trees. From the wood-railed corral where Warden Cherry communes with the sandy foal, the Goree horses at pasture look no bigger than bushes.
Having landed this assignment that, for reasons that are plain, is considered one of TDCJ's plums, Dessie Cherry says she's content. Yet she's not particularly surprised that she's here. From her very first day working at Goree when it was all female, Cherry says, she visualized herself running such a unit, and began carefully molding herself into the warden she is today. To Dessie Cherry's mind, the socialization women bring to prison management has only helped her. But all in all Cherry doesn't theorize much, preferring the tasks directly in front of her. It's how she's always done things. For now, Cherry's concerns include a thousand inmates of various descriptions, and a population still adjusting to Goree's first woman warden. Add to that a large horse farm.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"What's the matter with his neck?" Cherry asks the red-shirted cowboy, inspecting an angry brown stallion growling in a stall.
"He's got a hematoma," the cowboy explains. "He got bit up pretty good. He was getting dangerous -- biting, kicking. So I put him out with the mares, and they whipped him pretty good. They taught him some respect."
The cowboy looks puzzled as the usually equable Cherry bursts into a loud laugh.
"A success story!" she says.