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Arkansas: More women will guard showers, prevent rapes, in prison

June 19, 1997

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ Hit with a Justice Department discrimination suit, the state agreed Thursday to hire 400 more women guards in men’s prisons and let them do everything from stopping rapes to monitoring the showers.

``They’ll be doing everything the male officers do except strip searches,″ said Assistant Attorney General Wendy Michaelis.

The Justice Department sued the state two years ago, claiming its prisons routinely denied jobs to women since 1983.

Under the agreement approved by a federal judge, the state will also pay more than $20 million in back wages and retroactive retirement benefits to hundreds of women who were denied jobs or promotions over a 12-year period.

The Justice Department has settled similar lawsuits against at least six other states. It did not immediately have details of those suits.

``We can do the job. We have the right,″ said Verna Kentle, who guards some of Arkansas most dangerous convicts at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit. ``The respect you get from them, it’s all in how you as a female officer carry yourself.″

Arkansas’ prison system for years prohibited women from serving as correctional officers in male prison barracks. Because advancement is based on guards’ capacity to perform a variety of jobs, women were denied promotions.

The state changed its policy in 1992 to allow women to do such tasks as guard men’s barracks, stop rapes and monitor showers. But the Justice Department lawsuit claimed discrimination against women persisted into 1996.

Of the 1,713 prison guards at the state’s 11 male units, 505 are women. Only 13 rank as high as sergeant, and 478 are entry-level.

Ms. Kentle, 41, was hired a month after the policy change. Now she routinely pulls shower duty and guards the men’s barracks.

``You hear, you see everything,″ she said. ``You take chances every time you go into a barracks.″

Among other things, the state will pay $7.2 million to women who appliedto be guards and were not hired because of their gender and to female prison workers who were turned down for promotions.

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