On Thursday, January 16 at the St. Louis County Justice Center in downtown Clayton, a group of nine women were sworn in as corrections officers, a first for the county in multiple ways. This is the first all-women class of corrections officers and also the first time in recent memory that the county has held a graduation ceremony for a group of graduates from corrections officer training.
They took an oath to, among other things, “defend against all evil foreign and domestic” and were blessed by the Reverend Philip Duval, a member of the Justice Services Advisory Board. Duval told them to “learn to be a part of this career, because you’re a part of this family.” He also told the graduates not to give up, though they are entering a notoriously difficult profession – suicide rates among correctional officers, according to an American Military University study, are twice that of the general population.
“Stay around with us,” Duval said. “Don’t rush off. Don’t get so frustrated you think you can’t do this.”
Then, it was time for pictures and cake with families. Though women are not usually pictured as jail guards in the popular imagination, for these women this is a high-prestige job and, for many, a way to hold up a family tradition.
Pristina Hanning’s son Torron Henderson pinned on her badge. He is currently studying at Lindenwood University for a degree in criminal justice and hopes to be a juvenile probation officer.
Hanning wasn’t the only graduate for whom different forms of policing are a family business, a way of continuing a legacy. Asmara Mender was given her badge by her mother, a St. Louis County Police officer. “I wanted to make a difference and follow in my mom’s footsteps,” Mender said. Stephanie Kelly is a former police officer herself.
Michelle Royal comes from a military family and took this job “for the prestige,” she said. She hopes to use it as an avenue to become a case manager or social worker someday.
Raul S. Banasco, who is two months into his tenure as director of St. Louis County Justice Services, took on this job shortly after several inmates died under county jail supervision. The county has not had a permanent director of justice services since early 2018. This is the first graduating class of correctional officers under Banasco’s supervision.
The selection of only women for this class, Banasco said, was simply because they were the most qualified candidates.
“Often we start with vetting 80 applicants, and by the time we get through the background checks it weeds them down,” Banasco said. “So we ended up with nine women in our academy – it’s not often that happens.”
Nationally, only 41 percent of the corrections workforce is female. According to reporting by The Marshall Project, these women are often at high risk of sexual harassment and assault –both by their colleagues and by those they are guarding. But, Banasco said, “Corrections has come full-circle in the last hundred years. It’s a very safe environment as long as we have policy and procedures and provide them with the skills to do their job.”
Now, these women will each be working on different floors of the Justice Center – not in the open office-style rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows where they graduated that visitors to the building might see, but in the inner network of concrete hallways and cells where incarcerated people are held. They will join a staff of about 250 correctional officers currently employed by the county.
Some of the women hope that their gender will actually give them an advantage in relating to inmates. Kayla Cattage, one of the graduates, said that women may be more able to deal with the stress of working in a jail because “we come at things from a different perspective.”
“Yeah, we’re rational thinkers,” Michelle Royal chimed in.
Charpryece Parker agreed. “Even though we are dealing with criminals,” Parker said, “I really do feel that a lot of these guys have a respect for women, and that masculinity, from a man-to-man type of thing, it gets lost sometimes.”