DANVERS – Being a case manager at a Social Security disability law firm didn’t cut it for 25-year-old Jacquelyn Richards.
The Danvers High Class of 2004 graduate had earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Northeastern University in 2009, and though she had secured a good desk job, she was frustrated because she was not using the skills she learned in school.
Then, Richards learned that the Essex County Sheriff’s Department was hiring a new crop of correctional officers. She was accepted into a 10-week basic training academy and became part of one of the largest groups of female cadets ever to train at the 20-year-old facility, according to department spokesman Paul Fleming.
Of the 32 people currently training to become officers, 10 are women.
“I think people are realizing women can take charge of a facility just as well as men can, and they are also able to de-escalate situations, as well,” said Richards, who lives in Danvers.
Soon she will be working for a department that presently has 48 women in uniform, many of them stationed at the jail, where there are no female inmates. Female officers also work at a women's transitional program in Salisbury.
During training, Richards wears a gray T-shirt with her last name printed on the front, while referring to everyone she meets as “sir.” She and her fellow recruits were busy training in hand-to-hand defensive tactics at the Danvers Armory last week.
Variety is what drew her to the job.
“You never know what's going to happen,” she said.
Starting compensation is $51,000, including $10,000 for health benefits and a $41,000 salary, Fleming said.
The 10 women now being trained are part of a large class of corrections officers being hired to fill 50 vacancies in a department with 400 uniformed staff. These vacancies were created by retirements, those on family maternity leave, and nine officers who have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, Fleming said.
The department is using the opportunity to diversify its ranks.
“We put an emphasis on recruitment of women in this class,” Sheriff Frank Cousins said. When he arrived in 1996, there were only three or four women in the uniform division, he said, and he felt there should be more.
“Balance is very important in the workplace,” Cousins said. “I teach at North Shore Community College, and a lot of women in my class want to be probation officers, police officers and corrections officers.”
The women are heading into a field that is dominated by men, but many see this as a challenge rather than a stumbling block.
“Corrections has always been something that interests me,” said Krystina Markos, 25, an Ipswich High graduate who now lives in Rowley. “I think it’s just perceived as being a male-dominated field, but as you look more into it ... I think we bring a different aspect to the field. ... There is a lot more that goes into it than just muscle.”
Markos also likes it that the job varies from day to day.
“I think it’s a hands-on career, I think it’s constantly changing,” said Markos, who spent three years at North Shore Community College before going to Salem State University, where she received her bachelor’s in administration of criminal justice. She looks forward to a long career as a corrections officer.
Coursework during the basic training is quite extensive; it includes ethics, CPR and defensive tactics. Cadets learn how to handcuff someone, write a report and even handle a hostage situation. There are two weeks of firearms training, and all cadets must meet the same physical standards regardless of their sex.
“No difference at all, absolutely not,” said Michael McAuliffe, the commandant for the basic training academy.
McAuliffe said the national average for female corrections officers in all-male prisons and jails is about 6 percent. At Middleton Jail, more than 15 percent of the guards are women.
Many make a career of it.
“We have a lot of females who have moved up into administrative positions, investigations,” McAuliffe said.
Markos, a dog lover, said she would like to work in the K-9 unit, but she would also like to explore other aspects of the department.
Sheriff”s Department officials acknowledge that female corrections officers face challenges working in an all-male jail, such as catcalls from inmates and having to break up fights with inmates who may be bigger and stronger than they are. However, some of these women have also served in the military alongside men.
“They know what they are up against,” Cousins said.
McAuliffe said women are often able diffuse situations better than men can.
“Guys get all pumped up sometimes, and it’s a little harder for us to stop something,” McAuliffe said.
Richards, for one, is not daunted by the physical nature of the job. She played sports growing up: hockey, basketball, softball and a semester of rugby in college.
“I enjoy the physical aspect of it,” Richards said.
Markos, for one, was pleased to find so many other women training alongside her.
“It’s a good thing to have it even out a little bit,” Markos said.
The Salem News
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