ABERDEEN - Beneath curdled gray clouds, Keri Towle's blue uniform is a speck of color in a sea of prison-issue khaki.
The male inmates of Stafford Creek Corrections Center hurry along the prison’s concrete paths toward jobs, doctors, the gym or the library. Towle, a corrections officer, suddenly stops a thickly built inmate named Harold Rath.
“Mr. Rath, can you step aside?” she asks.
Rath turns around, showing on the back of his shaved head a saucer-sized tattoo of a woodpecker toting two guns inside the words, “Grays Harbor’s Most Wanted.”
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Towle is outnumbered several hundred to one at the moment. Rath easily outweighs her by 130 pounds. And Towle starts patting him down for contraband.
The death of corrections officer Jayme Biendl at the Monroe Reformatory on Jan. 29 has raised debate among many about the vulnerability of women working among male inmates. Having a lone, slight woman doing hands-on work behind bars might seem like a jarring risk — to Towle, to the prison and to taxpayers’ exposure to liability.
But in the 35 years since women broke into the ranks at Washington’s male prisons, gender has become mostly an afterthought inside.
Of the 3,708 officers in the state’s prisons, 592 — 15 percent — are women. They have filled every job, from officer to superintendent. Several female officers interviewed for this story said they don’t feel targeted by inmates because of their gender.
Female corrections officers once were excluded for their lack of size and strength. But female officers are hurt less often than men, according to studies. They are seen as better communicators, often defusing machismo tension before it erupts.
Corrections remains a dangerous job, as illustrated by Biendl’s death, the first of an officer in 32 years.
Last year, Department of Corrections officers spent 8,900 days — more than 24 years in total — on paid disability leave because of assaults or on-the-job physical injury, according to the Department of Labor and Industries. At Monroe, one female employee on the custodial staff was on leave for several months after an alleged sexual assault that remains under investigation.
Towle, a slim, blond 26-year-old with the walk and demeanor of an ex-jock, has not suffered an injury since being hired three years ago.
She long ago learned to ignore hoots and catcalls from inmates fresh off the “chain bus” from other prisons .
“Those are the guys who haven’t gotten to know me,” she said.
As she finishes with Rath and moves on to another patdown, Rath turns around. Female officers say inmates sometimes treat them protectively, and Biendl’s death has rattled Rath, a longtime felon.
Referring to the prime suspect, Byron Scherf, Rath said, “That dude needs to be slung from a tree. You don’t treat the females that way.”
The gender integration of Washington’s correctionalofficer work force started in 1972, when government agencies fell under the Civil Rights Act’s ban on sex discrimination.