‘Trailblazers’ Discuss Women in Prison Posts

A panel of women leaders in criminal justice detailed their experiences in the male-dominated profession and discussed correctional reforms at an Institute of Politics (IOP) forum last Thursday night.

The panel featured Kathleen Dennehy, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, and Jeanne S. Woodford, director of the California Department of Corrections.

Introduced as “trailblazers” by former Ambassador Swanee Hunt, who is also director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), the two women followed parallel professional paths, rising from the bottom of the correctional agencies they now respectively run.

Dennehy is the first woman to head Massachusetts’s prison system, while Woodford served as the first female warden of the famed San Quentin State Prison in California. Both women have held their current positions for the past year.

Woodford said that at the time they both entered the system, hiring women to work in male correctional facilities was highly controversial, presenting her with the “challenge of proving women could do the job and do it different from men and still do it effectively.”

For her part, Dennehy said she had been unaware of any barriers she faced and attributed her success to external pressures from a late 1970s State Department lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections for having too few women.

Dennehy also said that, contrary to popular belief, union leaders, rather than inmates, are most likely to use derogatory words to describe women leaders.

KSG Associate Professor and panel moderator Anne M. Piehl ’86 added that both women were appointed by Republican governors pledging improvement within the correctional system.

Piehl also asked Dennehy and Woodford about the reforms they intend to lead. Their answers focused primarily on reforming methods of inmate reentry and parole, as well as classification systems and, in California, the female inmates.

Speaking about reforming the women’s correctional system, Woodford said that in using the methods designed for men, such as security and staffing, for women, “We have treated them like male offenders in a one size fits all system.”

Instead, she said that she proposes more emphasis on social work, stopping cross gender searches, and reexamining classification systems.

Joshua Patashnik ’07 said that he found the discussion interesting.

“Prison reform doesn’t get any recognition in the press,” he said. “For everyone—the inmates, the families—it affects their lives and a poor system reflects badly on society.”