July 05, 1982 12:00 PM

Recreation time at the California Institution for Men in Chino: Male prisoners, uniformed alike in blue jeans and blue chambray shirts, mill about the low-rise prison facility, closely supervised by khaki-clad guards. Suddenly into the crowd steps a 5’3″, 115-pound woman, dressed in a sparkling white pants suit, a purple silk tulip peeking brightly from her pocket. The prisoners stare, are silent—and then a long, low whistle shatters the quiet. “Well, that’s better than those awful sucking noises I used to hear,” Midge Carroll will say later.

For Carroll, 45, the whistles of inmates are the least of the problems she faces as the new acting superintendent of America’s fourth largest male prison (her permanent appointment by Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to be a formality). The first female warden of a male state penitentiary in California, Carroll is in charge of 3,632 minimum to maximum security inmates, a staff of 1,130 guards, an annual budget of $46 million—and a prison rife with trouble. Near the San Bernardino Mountains 40 miles east of Los Angeles, Chino has been torn by inmate riots, mass escapes and other abuses—like goose-shooting parties thrown by the former superintendent (for himself and friends) using blinds built by inmates, or the $4.90-a-pound T-bone steak dinner served to all inmates on Mother’s Day. The prison has earned the nickname “Disneyland East.” As one prisoner candidly admits, “Things have been going downhill around here for a while.”

In April Carroll was summoned from her job as associate superintendent of the small, minimum security Sierra Conservation Center, a correctional facility in Northern California, to take over Chino on three days’ notice. The then superintendent and three members of his staff were removed when officials learned that a double murderer had received preferential treatment, including his own well-stocked refrigerator and escorted shopping trips to Beverly Hills. California officials are counting on Midge Carroll to bring order to Chino. The choice, according to State Corrections Director Ruth Rushen, was easy: “Midge is the best-qualified person we have.”

Carroll brings a canny toughness to her job, most in evidence when she leaves the confines of her flower-brightened but otherwise drab office and circulates in the prison. A prime information center is the dining room, which can hold nearly a thousand prisoners. “You can pretty much pick up on how the inmates are getting along,” she says. “If the food is bad, you’ve got problems. And the food isn’t very good.” Despite the old superintendent’s occasional bursts of extravagance, most Chino food is institutional and uninspired.

Prisoners greet Carroll on the grounds with a jaunty “How ya doin’?” “Male inmates respect rank,” she contends. “They don’t care if I’m male or female. They know I’m the superintendent.” Often prisoners approach Carroll directly with complaints, and she usually hears them out. One inmate tells her that Chino’s high-carbohydrate breakfasts are bad for diabetics. “But there’s fish on the menu tonight,” Carroll points out. “Yeah, but I don’t like fish,” the man answers. “He’s just reaching for attention,” Carroll comments after noting the plaint.

“I haven’t been happy with what I’ve seen so far,” Carroll says, as she inspects a weed-choked baseball diamond and a gaping, screenless second-story cell block window. “This place has become run-down. That’s one of the things we’re trying to remedy.” Among her first targets is the 14-foot-high fence of chain link topped with barbed wire. “I want to put in a high-security fence, probably with concertina wire or razor tape on top,” she says. “I found out that 20 men have walked off the grounds this year.” She blames the escapes on laxness.

The prison population, she feels, has changed drastically since she first worked at Chino as a guard 10 years ago—and even more so since 1941, when Chino was opened as a minimum security “prison without walls.” “There’s more violence in prisons now,” she says. “What we have are young, violent street gangs. It’s no longer practical to have a prison without walls.”

Carroll initiated a crackdown at Chino: All vehicles are searched before leaving the prison grounds, and strict surveillance is maintained over inmate movement. “When I was working up north,” she says, “I ran the institution like a boot camp, and we’re going to have rules here—go by the book. You don’t make exceptions—for employees or inmates.”

Carroll was one of two female guards at Chino in 1972, assigned to walk the yard. It was a first. When the women set foot in the yard, she recalls, “there were 500 or 600 men. I said to my partner, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ And she said, ‘Keep steppin’.’ I braced myself and walked across and the guys were yelling obscenities and doing all sorts of things. We decided that we’d stop and talk to them—and we did. In a short time we were walking that yard and there was no reaction.”

Carroll’s attitudes spring from long exposure to life on the underside. The youngest of eight children born to a Kansas dust bowl farmer, she married at 17, had a son at 18, and moved with her civil engineer husband to California when she was 19. By 1966 she was newly divorced with two children in her care, pregnant with her ex-husband’s third child, and lacking in job skills. By chance she found out about a Civil Service examination for prison guards, passed it, and was assigned to the California Institution for Women, the sole officer in a crowded dorm of 70 or 80 women. “It opened up a new world for me,” she recalls. “I knew nothing about what the prisoners called ‘the life’ [crime, violence and prostitution]. I wound up with a lot of sympathy for them.” The experience politicized her; from 1971 to 1975 Carroll and her sister, Norma Willson, published a pioneering feminist newsletter. Still a staunch defender of abortion, she says that “you see the men and women who, as children, were unwanted, uncared for, tormented all their lives. And then you see the new generation of unwanted, unkept children that’s going to fill up the prisons in 10, 20 years.”

Carroll lives in a motel near Chino and usually puts in 14-hour workdays. Her husband of the last six years, Glenn Carroll, is 300 miles away near Yosemite, where he is a conservation camp administrator. Midge’s youngest child, Michelle, 15, lived with him to finish the school year. Her other kids, both married, are Jeffrey, 26, a criminology student, and Elizabeth, 22, a housewife. “The family has been very supportive,” Midge says. “The pressures of the job are so great, I’m glad I don’t have family pressures.”

Working for 16 years in prisons, says Midge, “has made me less trusting and more suspicious.” But she adds: “It’s not all negative. I realized someone could commit a horrible crime, but I could still find that individual likable. It’s made me more sensitive to people in pain.”

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