That might seem like a lot of power for a woman, in a job traditionally dominated by men, to have over a jail population that is more than 80 percent male. But Abernathy, a nine-year veteran at the jail who carries the rank of lieutenant, oversees a staff of 34 corrections officers, almost half of whom are women.
“It doesn’t make a difference to inmates who you are,” Abernathy said on a recent shift at the jail. “They’ll usually try stuff on a new officer. You need to have good interaction skills.”
Many women may have such skills, as jails across the state these days regularly employ female corrections officers and strive to keep employment opportunities equal, according to Bobby Timmons, executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs’ Association.
Timmons didn’t have ready access to numbers of female corrections officers in the state’s county jails, but said Alabama was in line with the rest of the country.
“We’re as good as any other state when it comes to employing females in the corrections facilities,” Timmons said.
Timmons also said it’s become common for women to oversee jails. “We don’t look at sex when hiring, but it seems that females will usually stay with the department longer,” Timmons said.
Criminal justice has also become a prevalent major for women at Jacksonville State University. According to Richards Davis, the head of JSU’s criminal justice department, about half of the students currently enrolled in criminal justice classes are women.
There were 540 criminal justice majors at JSU in 2011, according to figures from the school. Abernathy was once one of those JSU criminal justice majors. While still in school, she began working as a floor officer at the jail. After she passed the civil service exam, a comprehensive test filled with scenarios an officer might face daily, Abernathy was promoted, quickly moving from corporal to sergeant and in 2009 earning the rank of lieutenant.
Abernathy said female officers have the same duties and expectations as male officers. Abernathy balanced those responsibilities, plus her JSU classwork, with the requirements of mothering two young boys. Working at the jail was originally a way to get her foot in the door and gain experience, she said. Now she’s using her training to help her advance and eventually work for the FBI.
Working in corrections can be challenging on a daily basis, but the female officers don’t associate these challenges with their gender. It’s a challenging job for anyone, according to Sgt. Barbara Gardner. Inmates seem to treat everyone the same, she said.
“Sure there is always going to be something because you’re female,” she said. “We do deal with catcalls, but so do the male officers from female inmates.”
Gardner has worked as a corrections officer for five years. She majored in criminal justice at JSU and started her job at the jail shortly after graduating. She works as a shift supervisor, making sure all aspects of the jail are running smoothly.
Gardner said some of the jail’s male officers can be a little protective of their female colleagues. However, she said, it’s not a sex issue.
“Everyone looks out for one another and everyone pulls their own weight,” Gardner said.
Gardner explained if there is an issue with an inmate, the gender of the corrections officer is irrelevant. Everyone is expected to jump in and help.
When friends find out what Rebekah Branning does for a living their reaction is usually “I couldn’t do that,” she said.
Branning has worked as a corrections officer for two years and said she’s always been interested in law enforcement. She explained she does feel the need on some days to demand respect from inmates.
“I won’t be pushed over because I’m a girl,” she said.
Branning said she sees male and female officers treating each other equally at work.
The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, also employs two women on its staff of deputies. Sgt. Lynde Green started working as a clerk in the Sheriff’s Office 17 years ago. Green said seeing the environment and what deputies do on a daily basis made her want to do that. She worked her way up from warrants clerk to deputy, and then went on to work as an investigator.
“I do it for the satisfaction of trying to solve cases, get property back and helping victims. I want justice for the victims,” Green said.
Green supervises the criminal investigative division. On a daily basis she assigns cases to investigators, interviews victims and processes evidence. Green says she has, on rare occasions, received different treatment on the job for being a woman. She said she has gotten reactions from other agencies, though not local ones, when she’s part of a tactical team, the highly trained groups that undertake dangerous missions like ending standoffs with armed suspects.
“Sometimes when I go in as a leader I get a surprised look,” Green said.
Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.