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Women in corrections: Training to survive

Calibre Press Street Survival seminars aren’t just for the streets

(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

By Rachel Fretz, Corrections1 editor
Calibre Press, Home of the Street Survival Seminar

Thirty percent of correctional officers are women (more than double the ratio of female to male street police officers), so it makes sense that female COs would need to focus on officer survival in a way that trains to their body type and strengths.

Because, when you’re working as a correctional officer, you know that you’ll be dealing with bad guys at work — street officers can’t say the same with 100% certainty at the beginning of every shift.

That’s why Street Survival seminar instructor and PoliceOne featured columnist Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith always gives props to correctional officers. “Police say there’s a chance we’ll deal with bad guys today, but COs deal with all a**holes all the time,” she said.

Female officers know this, so why aren’t more of them training for it? According to Smith, some female correctional officers may feel like it’s harder for them to get the time off to train compared to their police counterparts, and that they have a harder time trying to justify it to their administrators — and even to themselves.

“They’ll see a class like Street Survival and they think, well I’m not on the street,” Smith said. “But we want to change their minds and get them interested in women-specific training.”

Mental toughness

The goal of any training, from a correctional standpoint, is to know your strengths and learn how to compensate for any potential weaknesses. To this end, the seminar instructors explore unique “mental toughness,” as well as the physical demands to go with it.

The topics covered at the Street Survival for women (and, in fact, all Street Survival seminars) include:

  • Communication
  • Less Lethal

    Don’t miss the Street Survival
    seminar for women
    Atlantic City, N.J. December 1, 2008
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  • Handcuffing
  • Searching
  • Disarming
  • Hand-to-hand combat
  • Using your tools
  • Small officer tactics


Communication is a very strong female skill — and a major topic at Street Survival seminars.

Betsy Brantner Smith

“Women are amazing communicators,” said Smith. “They’re better able to talk their way into and out of potentially dangerous situations.”

These days, women are working in great numbers in all-male correctional facilities for the simple reason that more men than women are in custody. And like it our not, women are often viewed by male inmates as an easier target, which means they really have to hone their skills.

The good news is that women deploy communication as a tactic more successfully than their male counterparts.

Dr. Laura Bedard

“A guy inmate will really want to square off with a male guard, but it’s less fun to brag about beating up a female guard. Since, physically, they can, they don’t feel the need to prove it,” Smith said. “This gives women more of an opportunity to use their verbal skills.”

Dr. Laura Bedard, assistant warden at an all-female facility in Florida says the power of communication is evident in interactions with women inmates, as well.

“Female officers can relate to women. They understand how it is to miss your children, to not be home for a birthday – they empathize better with inmate situations.” [CorrectionsOne is proud to welcome Dr. Bedard as our newest columnist — watch for her inaugural article, “The challenges of running a female prison” in next week’s C1 newsletter!]

And because communication is a workplace skill (to be sure, a life skill), there’s also the issue of communicating with male coworkers.

Do the seminar instructors cover that, you ask?

“Absolutely!” Smith said. “Male coworkers, male supervisors – we also talk about communicating with other women. Because it’s different – women talk to women differently; they connect over different issues. So we talk about how to connect to people.”

Reading pre-attack postures

Seminar instructors also go into body language awareness and pre-attack postures at the Street Survival seminar.

“I have attended 11 seminars. I go every year, and encourage my co-workers to attend both regular and women’s seminars.

Attending the Street survival seminar is about having responsibility to yourself and your loved ones. I have learned half of what I do at the seminar. I learned more in two days than I did in 10 years.”

— Michael Hamilton, SNR CO, Southern State Correctional Facility

“This is huge for COs,” Smith said. “Correctional officers need to be constantly aware of those pre-attack indicators because they really don’t know when an attack’s coming. Learning to be homed into those pre-attack postures will help them stay safe.”

Reading this body language is where “women’s instinct” — and it’s not just a myth — can really kick in.

“Women tend to be much better body language readers than men,” Smith said. “We are pre-wired to be able to detect a slight change in somebody’s body language, a slight change in their tone of voice or a slight shift in their eyes.”

In a world where every unconscious shift and movement is packed with meaning, the ability to gauge these signals, and anticipate a threat, could be the most important tool in your survival tool box.

Training with an emphasis on frontal targets

Women’s senses are biologically superior to that of men — that is, except for vision, specifically frontal vision.

For a female officer, this means training with an emphasis on frontal targets. Nationally recognized firearms and defensive tactics expert Lou Ann Hamblin of Louka Tactical training LLC teaches many of the sections on tactics for the smaller officer.

“You cannot train peripheral vision,” Hamblin said, “only peripheral awareness.”

While the seminar does not go hands-on, the instructors do demonstrate key tactics.

“We give women correctional officer attendees some no-nonsense tactics for handcuffing, searching, disarming, hand-to-hand combat and using your different tools,” Smith said.

“Be one with your continuum”

Another major topic at any Street Survival seminar (and, these days, in most law enforcement circles) is less lethal. Less lethal training, Smith said, is highly individualized, and something that women officers need to approach differently than men.

Which less lethal options can be considered, and what option is ultimately deployed, depends on the officer (primarily, is the officer male or female, small or large?), as well as the environment. For instance, a large officer with hand-to-hand combat expertise might want to go hands-on with a 300-lb. subject immediately, whereas a smaller female officer will need to deploy different force just as quickly.

So, in essence, your force options depend on you — and where you are.

“In a correctional setting, many officers don’t have lethal options. So you use the best less lethal option, and you use it instantaneously,” Smith said.

The trick is knowing when to use those options, when they’re going to work (for instance, anticipating that O.C. will not have much of an effect on a cranked up subject); and also knowing what your departmental policy is.

The seminar brings together all of the components of this high-stress, instant decison-making.

The point of a female-specific training, then, is to build and use your particular strengths to your advantage. Not only will the Street Survival seminar increase your awareness of pre-attack postures and provide a “tactical inoculation,” but it will make sure that you go to work each day with an enhanced “winning” mindset.

Rachel A. Fretz
Rachel A. Fretz