Debra Schaefer, warden at the SCI Muncy correctional facility in Pennsylvania, treats the inmates like she treats her children. "Some days I go in there and I feel like I'm a foster mother," she says — "the only difference is I show my children love." Debra is one of three women profiled in a Times of London piece on SCI Muncy. The prison has three people on its death row (including Shonda Walter, who drew the image at left and the one after the jump) and over 1,300 inmates — all of them female. Working with these women requires constant vigilance — inmates sometimes throw urine or feces, which may be infected with disease — but Debra and her fellow coworkers also develop a relationship with their charges that's both poignant and chilling.
"It makes it harder that they're women," says Rhonda Cobb, a control center sergeant who always dreamed of being a corrections officer. "Because you don't expect it from a woman. If a woman goes and butchers somebody, it makes us all look bad. As women." According to the Times, half of the women on death row are there for killing those close to them — their partners, their children, or both. Many — the figure for all inmates at Muncy is 86% — have themselves been abused. Cobb is also an abuse victim, so she empathizes with her charges to some degree. But she can no longer read their files. ""We had a girl who had just come in – had killed her two-year-old baby," she says, "She had burnt it, starved it to death, and my son was two years old at the time. [...] With that particular inmate, it was never the same. You just don't want to know the person's details." Debra Schaefer displays a similar mix of understanding and detachment:
Have I been angry enough when I think I could have killed someone? Sure. But at that moment – in a sane, sensible person – lurks the question: what's going to happen if I do this? Whereas these women… they dropped off the deep edge. Either they didn't care or they didn't think what the repercussions would be. I can't answer for them. I wasn't in their shoes. But no, I can't sympathise. When you walk into that environment, you can't cry for them. We have 1,200 inmates – that's too many tears.
It would be too easy to say that being a female warden among women is categorically different from being a male one among men. Some men probably also feel the sense that criminals have let their gender down — and that, were it not for luck and good judgment, they might have done so too. But there is a culture at SCI Muncy that may be unique to women's prisons: a culture of conversation. The Times writes, a little crudely, that there are fewer fights at Muncy than at men's prisons, "because the female inmates can't keep a secret. They talk, they don't harbour malice, so incidents are prevented." And the whole piece, with the almost familial relationships between officers and inmates, the difficulties of getting too close or too angry, reminds me of a joke Sigrid Nunez tells in her novel, The Last of Her Kind:
Two women who are imprisoned in the same cell together for twenty-five years are released on the same day. Before they go their separate ways, they hang around outside the prison gate and talk for an hour.
It's reductive, and it reinforces some of the stereotypes about gabby women that ordinarily make me angry. But it does speak to the way that women are raised to live with one another, to engage in a kind of constant communication that can be as restrictive as it is reassuring — and that must make life for a warden or a prisoner all the more harrowing for the understanding that one could so easily be in the other's shoes. The Pink Mile: Women On Death Row [Times of London] Muncys 3 Amigos [Muncy 3 Amigos]