Working as a female correctional officer in the early days – A Q&A


(Originally published in 2016)


In 1984, Elizabeth Van Allen and Marg McCullough were hired as part of the first waves of female Correctional Officers at CSC. They participated in the same training program in Kingston, Ontario for 13 weeks, and then started their careers as CX1s in two different institutions – Elizabeth at Kingston Penitentiary (KP) and Marg at Collins Bay. In celebration of International Women’s Day 2016, Let’s Talk Express sat down with them to talk about what it was like to be some of the first women to work as Correctional Officers. Here is what they had to say. 


How did you come to work at CSC?


E: I never planned to go into corrections. My dad worked for CSC as a staff college training officer, but he never talked about work and I didn’t have a true appreciation for it. When I went to Queen’s University, however, I took sociology and a lot of my courses were criminology-focused. We often had visits and lectures from the John Howard Society and other partners in corrections, and that’s when the whole concept of offenders returning to the community piqued my interest. I decided that I wanted to be a Parole Officer, or Case Management Officer as they were called then. Unfortunately CSC wasn’t hiring for those positions at the time, so I figured I would become a Correctional Officer and then work my way into case management.


M: After graduating from university with a B.A and Bach. of Education, I taught elementary school in Kingston for a few years, retiring to raise my two infant children. I soon found myself in the position of requiring full time work upon the departure of my husband. Friends recommended CSC and case management as a good fit for my skills. However, they were only hiring Correctional Officers. I took a leap of faith and began training. It was a new beginning with the hope of being a Case Management Officer/Parole Officer in the future.


How were you received when you showed up for your first day on the job?      


E: When I arrived at KP, there were already six female Correctional Officers working there. I remember working in the dome where the living units were, and I was asked to do what everyone else was asked to do. I wasn’t treated differently in terms of tasks. That said, I can remember a bit of hostility on behalf of some - not all - of my male colleagues simply because I was a young university educated woman. At that time CSC had changed their hiring practices so that only people with degrees were coming in, so for the men who had worked there for 25 years with a high school education or less, I think they were a little uncomfortable. Add to that the fact that my father worked at the staff college, so people thought I was only there because of him. Those were some of the barriers I was working against.


M: I do not remember a great deal about our first day at Collins Bay. We were in a training mode and it was just before Christmas so things were quiet.  My core mates and myself (eight of us) tended to gravitate towards each other initially. Much of this time is a blur but I do remember one incident. Upon arriving at the kitchen for training, I was totally ignored by the Senior Correctional Officer on duty. I made the time useful by proceeding on my own to explore the area and talk to kitchen staff. Finally the officer approached me and in front of others took out his keys, removed one, handed it to me with the sole statement that this was the key, that was the door and that was all I needed to know. One of the civilian kitchen staff told me that I did not need to take that sort of treatment. I understood the message. 


How were you treated at work on an ongoing basis?


E: I don’t recall any specific incidents, but at the time I think the men’s fear of having women in the correctional environment was more from a physical perspective. They were concerned that if we didn’t have the strength to fight with an inmate, what good would we be to our colleagues? Or, when an incident happened, could they rely on us to be there as their male colleagues would be, or would we crumble under the pressure?

I think what was required was for someone to give you the opportunity to prove that you could handle the job just like our male colleagues, and that is what happened to me. One day there was a disturbance in the dome because inmates were refusing to work. They were smashing things, yelling, setting fires, and causing lots of commotion. My male supervisor walked up to me, handed me a bunch of handcuffs and leg irons and said “Ok lady, here’s your chance.” I managed the situation successfully, along with my male colleagues, and proved I could do the job. That was a turning point for me.


M: Upon arrival at Collins Bay, there were some female Correctional Officers and many males employed at the CX1 level. The male officers tended to fall into categories.  There were those who were openly hostile, those who were non-committal following the lead of whatever male officer was present, and those who were supportive and positive. It soon became evident that the quality of the work experience depended completely on which officer/s was present on your assigned post.

As I look back I can see how far we have progressed. I remember incidents then of being at a post with others and being subjected to sexual innuendo, physical touches and pats, manhandling, and teasing. This was not occurring all the time but enough that it was not unusual. At the time I assumed that this was all part of the job and the milieu.  There would not have been anyone to object to and I felt that it would definitely be a negative move career-wise. That was just the way things went.



How were you treated by the inmates?


E: I don’t recall inmates being an issue. I found it more challenging to find my way with my colleagues than I did with the inmates.


M: Inmates were never a problem. The problem was my male colleagues.


Did you ever feel like you were held back in your career because you were a woman?


E: No. As I look back on my 32 years with CSC and all that I’ve done, I don’t think I can say that I’ve been held back because I’m a woman. I achieved my goal of becoming a Parole Officer, and kept going from there. My goal was to demonstrate to my male colleagues that I could do the job just as well as them, and I did that. I also chose to take advantage of the opportunities that came my way. I’m not going to pretend that it was all sunshine and roses, because I’ve faced challenges along the way just like everyone else, but they made me a stronger person and contributed to who I am today.


M: I think that would depend on which direction you wanted to pursue. My time in security at Collins Bay was not comfortable, but I wrote competitions and always placed high. In this fashion I went to Joyceville Institution as a Living Unit Officer (L.U.01), a position where security work was combined with a small amount of case management, and clothing did not involve the uniform of the CX. This was definitely a positive learning experience. Following that I wrote the competition for Senior Correctional Officer and placed high on that list as well. I returned to Collins Bay and found that after the one other female Senior Correctional Officer had departed on leave, I was the sole female occupant of that position. I acknowledge that many male officers wanted this position and would have most likely been excellent in that capacity. However they either did not do the competition or did not place. The experience as a sole female CX3 in a supervisory position was completely futile at that time. The innuendo and false accusations despite all attempts to do the job were exhausting. At that time there was no recourse and no support available to me. 


Looking back, did you accomplish everything you wanted to in your career?


E: Absolutely. As I mentioned, when I started at KP as a 21-year-old, I wanted to be a Parole Officer. Once I did that, I wanted to be a Warden. I never did fulfil that goal, but I was given some great opportunities at RHQ and NHQ. I have been a member of EXCOM since 2005, filling several positions at that table over the years, including a very rewarding opportunity to be the Regional Deputy Commissioner Prairies. Now I'm the Assistant Commissioner, Human Resource Management, taking on corporate challenges while ensuring HR talent is best positioned to support our operational environment.  Becoming a member of EXCOM didn’t even occur to me at first. It wasn’t even within the realm of possibility for me, but I walked through doors that were opened for me, and here I am.

When I was coming up, there were not as many women in managerial positions. It was still very male dominated. Even when I came to NHQ in 1998 there were few women on EXCOM. There’s no question that a boys club existed in the early years, but I think I figured my way around it because of my CX experience. I can honestly say that I always felt part of the team, and today I’m proud to say that EXCOM is just about 50-50 male and female.


M: Yes. All I ever wanted to be was a Parole Officer and to raise my family, and that’s what I did!

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"The First Female Correctional Officers" - the title is misleading as the first female correctional officers were hired in 1979 to work at the Regional Psychiatric Center in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Perhaps the title could have been, "hired within the first decade of having female correctional officers." Kudos to all those women who paved the way for future female Correctional Officers.

Meagan Smith

Great article!

Nathalie Bigras

Thank you for your honesty ladies!


I worked with Liz and Marg at CBI for a number of years in the 1990s. They were both great to work with. It was exciting to see Liz go to NHQ and watch her career progress through the years.
Marg always was upbeat and very interesting to talk and listen to.
We had other Case Management staff that were amongst the first female CX and to all of them you have to give a great deal of credit for their leadership and overall great people skills.

Amanda Gordon

Thanks for sharing!