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Women-Only Hiring Upheld for State Prison System

Washington State's prison system is fully justified in its new policy of hiring women guards to oversee women prisoners, despite strong objections from the union representing male correctional officers.

After wrestling for years with rampant cases of sexual abuse in Washington State's two lockups for women, the state Department of Corrections made a fundamental policy decision - to make 110 jobs available for women only. They're guard jobs to patrol cellblocks, prison grounds and work sites.

Male guards, members of a local Teamsters Union, promptly cried foul and sued, saying they were being discriminated against on the basis of sex in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But a panel of federal judges found last week that the women-only hiring policy is fully justified to shield inmates from abusive and inherently coercive encounters. The judges were flabbergasted to hear from one expert for the union arguing that women prisoners must learn how to deal with such abuse as part of the rehabilitation process.

Sexual abuse was so common behind prison walls that in 2007, women inmates filed a class-action lawsuit demanding reforms. That suit led to studies by the prison system, and eventually to reforms, including the women-only guard jobs. It also led to an undisclosed payout to inmates who had been abused, and to the firing of several male guards.

Washington State has two women's prisons - one in Gig Harbor holding more than 700 prisoners - and the empty women's death row - and one in Belfair which houses about 300 inmates.

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