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Who guards the guards when men, women in jail?

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TAVON White's loyal women took him anything he wanted -- drugs, money, the latest cellphones, tobacco and food, federal prosecutors say. They even bought him luxury German cars.

In the past four years, four of these women allegedly gave him five children. One tattooed "Tavon" on her neck; another has "Tavon" on her wrist.

White was an inmate in the Baltimore City Detention Center. The harem? His jail guards, according to an indictment.

Thirteen female corrections officers essentially handed control of the jail over to White and other members of the Black Guerilla Family, prosecutors say, allowing gang members to sell drugs and other contraband from behind bars. The jaw-dropping allegations left plenty of people wondering: Do women have any business being guards in a men's jail?

Here's something you might not know. In Baltimore's jails, which are run by the state, more than 60 per cent of the guards are women, Maryland corrections officials estimate. And nationwide, their numbers are rapidly approaching parity with male guards. Women made up about 37 per cent of the corrections force in 2007, the American Correctional Association says.

It makes sense. The incarceration rate has skyrocketed during the past 25 years, and most of those caught up in the criminal justice system are men. Fewer men than ever can pass the background check to become corrections officers. Women have filled the gap, applying in droves for stressful but stable jobs that pay an average of $40,000 a year, the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics says.

Now get ready for my next bombshell. According to a frequently quoted report by the Justice Department on sex in prisons and jails, most of the guards having sex with their charges are women. "Among the 39,121 male prison inmates who had been victims of staff sexual misconduct, 69 per cent reported sexual activity with female staff," the 2008-09 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found.

It's even higher in juvenile detention facilities, where 90 per cent of the boys who said they were victims of sexual advances by officers said they were approached -- and frequently raped -- by women.

Sometimes, we can make our pedestals a little too high. When women assume positions of power over the lives of others, they can become predators just like men can.

"There's an assumption that women won't do this, can't do this, that it's not in our nature," said Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University who has written extensively about sexual assault in jails and prisons. "But it is in our nature."

What about the female guards who are targeted by cunning and charismatic inmates? The women who are loveless, lonely and easily seduced? Are they predators or the prey?

In Montana, jailhouse lothario Michael Murphy seduced at least five female prison guards a few years ago. He was known for staging porn-like scenarios.

In February, two female corrections officers in New York were arrested after getting pregnant by inmates. One of them, Nancy Gonzalez, was having sex with Ronell Wilson, who is on death row for killing two police officers.

"I took a chance because I was so vulnerable and wanted to be loved, and now I am carrying his child," Gonzalez was recorded saying.

Lt. Col. Kim Spadaro, president of the American Jail Association, has seen her share of corrupted correctional officers, both male and female.

"In general, when the men do these things, the men do it to make the money," said Spadaro, who is the head of the Broward County department of detention in Florida, where about 34 per cent of the officers are female. "The women do it because they've fallen in love."

There was surely some of that in this Baltimore case. According to the indictment, investigators found an operating manual of sorts used by BGF that detailed "how new BGF recruits are taught to target a specific stereotype of a CO (correctional officer), specifically women with low self-esteem, insecurities and certain physical attributes."

Once seduced, the women saw themselves as the wives and girlfriends of White and his associates.

In a jail such as Baltimore's, where local convicts are guarded by local officers, there's a toxic social dynamic, Smith reminded me. On the outside, in these communities where women far outnumber men, the men have all the cards, she said. But when the men are locked up and women have the keys, the scenario is flipped.

Seduction may be about power, Smith said. A woman can have any man she wants. And he's usually begging for her attention.

Remember Abu Ghraib and Army Pfc. Lynndie England, who was a 21-year-old reservist when pictures surfaced of her holding a leash tied to the neck of a naked Iraqi prisoner?

What was missing there is the same thing that has been missing at the Baltimore City Detention Center: oversight.

Female guards aren't really the problem; incompetent bosses are. If women weren't there, White and BGF might have been trying to figure out a way to use money and power to corrupt male guards.

As long as there has been work, there have been men who have screwed it up. Dirty cops, corrupt bankers, shady businessmen, filthy politicians, molesting dentists. At no point do we say, "Men don't belong in this field."

Quite simply, corrupt people don't belong in this field. And these female guards need to get booted as far and as hard as any man would.


Petula Dvorak writes for the Washington Post.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 29, 2013 A9

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