Penitentiary pioneer reflects on her legacy

Tyler Clarke
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Cecilia Carter discusses her career over coffee on Thursday, having served as the first woman to work within the walls of a federal penitentiary in Western Canada. 

Reflecting on her two years served at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Cecelia Carter notes that in 1961, she was the only woman around.


Also, she didn’t serve “bad time” at the prison, instead she was the first female employee working behind lock and key in a federal penitentiary in Western Canada.

Women had worked for penitentiaries prior to her, she clarified, but never within the same space as inmates.

“There wasn’t a day that went by where I wasn’t in contact with an inmate -- talking to him or interviewing him. It was just something that they accepted,” she explained.

“I broke the ice,” she said, recalling a newspaper headline of the day that read “1,000 men; one woman.”

In 1961, Carter, born in Wakaw, found herself out of work, with her previous place of employment in Prince Albert closing down.

When she was contacted to apply for a Saskatchewan Penitentiary position that was earmarked for a woman, she was hesitant.

“There were so many firsts,” she said, noting that employment opportunities of the day weren’t as gender equal as they are today.

But, she found the courage to apply for, and get, the position -- beating out more than 100 other applicants to get the job.

“It was a great opportunity to show the rest of the girls in the country that you can get in if you wish, and the men accepted me in that group.”

Taking on various roles within the penitentiary, Carter served a two-year term at the prison.

Within these two years she learned valuable lessons she’s been able to carry with her.

Respect was key to success behind the Saskatchewan Penitentiary’s brick walls, she said, noting that disrespecting one’s co-worker set a dangerous prescient for the inmates.

There wasn’t a day that went by where I wasn’t in contact with an inmate -- talking to him or interviewing him. It was just something that they accepted Celia Carter

As a woman, working around and with inmates could be a frightening experience, but it’s a feeling one has to push down to be successful in the system, she said.

“You are afraid, but you don’t let it to get a hold of you,” she said. “You have to overcome it yourself.

“If you’re afraid, that isn’t the place for you. A couple of the girls who wanted to get hired in there … they didn’t last.”

Carter was the only woman employee for a few months, and then the floodgates opened -- something she said she was proud to have been a part of.

Much has changed with Corrections Canada since the early ’60s, Saskatchewan Penitentiary assistant warden management services representative Tyler Helm said this week.

“Anybody who wants to can apply for the job, on,” he said, noting that everyone goes though the same testing process, regardless of gender.

Today’s process is gender-neutral, with test marks and resumes assessed against job requirements.

About five decades later, Carter has found herself living in Alberta, where she has found herself coming full-circle and volunteering her time at correctional centres in Edmonton.

Linked to the volunteer effort through her church group, Carter encourages others to spend time aiding in inmates’ reintegration into society.

“They just want to do everything they can to get out and to get out into the world again,” she said. “It’s really encouraging to do the volunteering.”

Organizations: Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Corrections Canada

Geographic location: Western Canada, Wakaw, Alberta Edmonton

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