What is it like as a female working in a level four men’s correctional facility?

For the past four years I have worked as a psychologist in an adult correctional environment.  The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has approximately 34 correctional facilities throughout the State. There are four levels, one being the least restrictive which houses inmates with minor convictions and less extensive criminal backgrounds. I work with level four offenders who are housed in the most restrictive facilities due to the nature of their crime and their criminal history extends well into their juvenile years.

In a level four institution you will mainly find the state’s most violent offenders. These individuals have committed serial robberies, murders, or sexual assaults (as examples). Many of them are gang or cartel members. They have been deemed too violent or too much of a security risk that they require cell living and limited movement.

Every day that I enter the institution I have to check out a personal alarm, a set of keys, and a vest (to protect me from any homemade weapons). I carry a whistle around my neck on a breakaway lanyard so it cannot be used to strangle me. I have to maintain my correctional awareness anytime I am in or around inmates, specifically if I have to enter a housing unit. Correctional awareness is being hypervigliant not only about my surroundings, but identifying any safety risks. For example, when I enter a housing unit and inmates are in dayroom, I have to be cautious of their movements and whereabouts. When I use the stairs to get to the upper tier, I have to be cautious about inmates who are walking on the tier so they do not have the option of throwing me over the tier. When I enter or exit a building and there are inmates present, I have to ensure that they enter before me and never behind me. I have to be mindful of every small detail, including the whereabouts of my pen, to ensure my safety and the safety of others.

Obviously, I accepted this position fully aware of the safety risks that were involved in working in this type of environment. What I was not prepared to handle when I started working in an adult male correctional facility was the level of attention, and sexual harassment, I would be exposed to. Surely it goes without saying that I was going to draw a lot of attention from the inmates simply being a female, but I was not fully realistic with regard to the frequency and intensity of it.

Put it this way: approximately 9,000 inmates in the state of CA are serving life sentences. The majority of the inmates I work with have life sentences many of whom have been incarcerated for over thirty years to date. As such, they have had very little interaction with the opposite gender. As you can imagine, the presence of not just a female on the yard, but a female psychologist (one who validates and provides empowerment for rehabilitative reasons), causes quite the commotion. On a daily basis I ensure that I am dressed appropriately with loose fitting, high collared, clothing. On a daily basis, I am addressing crude comments, wandering eyes, and overfamiliarity.

But what I especially did not expect was that I would also have to address this behavior with custody staff. Being a female in a men’s correctional facility you expect this behavior from the inmates, but you don’t expect it from fellow staff. I hate to admit the reality, but I have had more sexual harassment from custody officers than I have had from inmates and it makes for a much tougher working environment. The mental health department has to have a cohesive working relationship with Custody staff, and when they violate your comfort and you speak out, they make the environment exponentially more hostile.

However, that being said, I value the knowledge and exposure I have gained from this experience. I have seen the entire spectrum of Axis I and Axis II disorders. I have learned how to elicit information from the most treatment resistant patients. I have honed my diagnostic skills and have a great radar for malingering. I’ve become a political action co-chair for CDCR and have met a great number of influential men and women working to make positive changes in the working environment. Most importantly, despite these adversities and environmental obstacles, I’ve seen real change in the lives of the patients I’ve worked with.

I’ve seen inmates get stabbed, inmates fighting each other, and inmates assaulting staff. Many people ask me how I could possibly want to work in this environment. The answer? The  men and women in our correctional system are entirely underserved. Several CA laws have been passed allowing for more and more offenders to be released back into society. They will be our neighbors. If I am able to reach even just one inmate a year who does not recidivate/reoffend, I feel gratified. I feel I’ve done my duty and that I am contributing to leaving the world a little better than I found it.



Questions? Please leave your comments!

Have a good day readers,

Dr. Engels

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