In the early 70s, Wendy Woods’ life was in turmoil. She was a young mother, with three children ages 1, 5 and 7, in the middle of a divorce, and her job in the visitor center with the California Youth Authority near Sonoma, was ending due to the facility’s closure. All these circumstances led her to, and kept her working for, San Quentin (or Big Q as it was called back then).
“It was supposed to be a lateral transfer,” Woods explained, “but I was thrown into the sea of male inmates and correctional officers, and was told I would be working the same positions as the male officers ... that because the Equal Opportunity Rights had passed, I would become the first female officer hired there ... their first guinea pig.”
According to Woods, another woman, Georgia (no last name known) was hired at the same time, but she only lasted one week.
“That first week was the worst. They used every tactic they could to scare us off,” Woods continued. “They sent us all over the prison, into the towers, put us on every shift. They sent us to blocks (Woods was sent to East Block, where 950 inmates were housed) and told us that we had to shower the inmates. It’s only because the inmates threw such a fit that we were pulled from that duty. They took us into the black museum, where there were ghastly photos. Weapons made from toothbrushes, toilet paper holders, or carved out of wood were lined in neat little rows. That’s all it took. Georgia left, but I was stuck because of my personal circumstances. I think I kind of got mad about then, and decided if I was going to leave, I would do so on my own terms.”
Woods, who was simply looking for a job to support herself and her children, ended up working at San Quentin for two-and-a-half years. The sole female guard, Woods stood out, and was an easy target for both the guards and inmates. However, once the inmates realized the guards wanted her gone, they became her allies ... her protectors.
“The inmates would line up and say ‘just smile at us lady’ when I walked by,” Woods said. “They became neater and started cleaning up their blocks. A couple inmates even went to the captain to tell him that it was nice to have a woman around to talk to once in a while.”
Woods worked towers, gun walls (guarding the walls perimeter, where she would sit for eight hours, with her Colt 45, Remington Rifle and a shotgun), and in the armory.
Quite by chance, Woods happened to make a valuable friend early-on in her employment - Sergeant C.E. Bud Jordan, who walked the yards with her “until these clowns (the guards) get used to seeing you around here,” he would tell her.
“A lot of the guards thought I was a woman’s libber, thought I was going to go after the easier jobs,” Woods added, “and one day, Bud asked me what a good-looking gal like me was doing there, so I explained my situation to him, and things got a lot easier for me because when Bud likes you, everyone likes you.”
Again, quite by chance, Jordan was a good friend of Lieutenant Malloy, who oversaw the prison’s visitor’s center, so about four months after being hired, Woods was transferred into the position she believed she should have had all along. Still, the pressure from the other guards, while subsiding cyclically, never really let up.
“Some of the games the guards would play” Woods said, “... one time I worked in the library alone. There was supposed to be a librarian and another guard, but I was alone. In walks a guard with six black inmates, and that guard leaves. One of the inmates walks over to me and says he wanted to show me something. What he showed me was the broom closet, and he says to me ‘looks like they have set you up again. If anything goes down, just get into the closet.’” Fortunately, nothing happened that day, and Woods never felt physically threatened as a guard, believing as a Christian, that she was protected by God.
By this time, Woods had become not only the darling of the local media, but the national media, as well. She appeared on the television show, “To Tell the Truth on April 4, 1973; and “What’s My Line on June 14, 1973. She received huge sacks of “fan” mail - some congratulating her and others wondering why she would ever want to work at Big Q in the first place.
While she can’t pinpoint one lone reason, Woods decided working as a prison guard did nothing for her life or for her career.
“It was just too depressing,” she said. “I guess the pressure finally got to me. It’s like a drop of water constantly hitting a rock in the same spot - eventually, you wind up with an indentation.”
Woods drove out the gate one day following her shift, and decided that she would never return again. She called the following day, using her two weeks vacation as her notice. Shortly after leaving, she heard, through the media, that one of the more compassionate correctional officers had been beaten to death by the inmates after he discovered drugs. Woods took a moment to thank God that she had made it out alive, despite her constant exposure to some of society’s most hardened criminals.
Woods saw a lot of things during her brief stint - the gas chamber, the old dungeon used for solitary confinement in the late 1800s, where an inmate was alone with nothing more than a “pot to pee in.”
Since quitting, she has never had contact with anyone associated with the prison. During her years there, Woods discovered her own personal strength and learned that she could endure anything she puts her mind to.
Post San Quentin, Woods took a year to recuperate, working as a freelance artist for children’s books. She finished her education, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Relations and Administration from the University of San Francisco. She then worked as a mental health clinician, and after retiring, relocated to the Mountain Area to be closer to her grandchildren.
At 72 years of age, Woods now has time for writing, painting and gardening. She is very active as a volunteer in the clothing ministry at the United Methodist Church, and has written a book, “Flowers and Guns,” which offers a humorous slant on her experiences as the first female guard to work at San Quentin. The book is dedicated to Jordan, and Mountain Area book signings are being scheduled.
“I paved a trail for women at San Quentin, and now there are women in the Special Squad Team, which deals with escapes ... they are the super cops of the prison,” Woods said. “Even though I have slowed down a bit, I still enjoy being busy. I have always believed that one should at least accomplish something while still here on the planet.”
“She had to absorb a lot of criticism from a lot of people,” former Captain of the Guards, William Merkle, who hired Woods, once said. “I have to give her credit for that. The sex barrier that she broke will never be rebuilt.”
San Quentin is the oldest prison in the state, with the first convicts arriving July 14, 1852. It sits on 432 acres overlooking the bay, and is located 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the county of Marin.
The state’s only gas chamber and death row for all male condemned inmates are located there. With a design capacity of 3,088, the prison currently houses about 3,900 inmates.
The total number of female peace officers today is 142 out of 937 total custody staff members. This number does not reflect the total number of female employees within all classifications at the facility.