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Why would recruiters choose female prison guards over males? It's a macho thing.

Not long ago, women who wanted to be corrections officers could expect to spend their entire careers in the small number of all-female institutions in this country. Laws and policies, which were upheld by a 1977 US Supreme Court decision, barred women from working as officers in male prisons. Then, in the early 1980s, as the equality movement gathered strength, the doors to prisons as a workplace for women started to open. Today, about 13 percent corrections officers in the United States are women, and most are guarding men.

As women moved into this previously all-male profession, prison administrators, as well academics who study prisons, discovered something interesting: Women are, in some ways, superior to men at the job. They are largely immune from the macho challenging that can occur between male inmates and male officers. And they tend to be effective communicating - an important skill in newer prisons, where sophisticated security systems reduce the need for brute strength.

Now, prison administrators are looking for more good women. A couple of years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Correction created a recruitment unit that enabled it to reach a larger number of women at job fairs and career centers. An experienced officer earns around $50,000 a year, and the job requires a high school diploma. More than half of the resumes the state correction department has received in the past year are from women, and the number of women in the department's latest class of recruits is up 10 percent. Of the class of 123 new officers, 22 of them are women.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, who runs correctional facilities in Dartmouth and New Bedford, says he usually sends a female officer to give the pitch to candidates when recruiting at colleges and job fairs. "We want women to see this is a great profession to be involved in," he says. When Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti, who is in charge of the county jail in Dedham, had a television public service announcement made to encourage viewers to apply for corrections-officer jobs, he made sure the video featured female officers. "All things being equal," he says, "if there's a woman in the final pool of applicants, we want to pick the woman."