Sitting on the back porch of her home in Atlanta, Peggi Gresham reminisces on her employment in the prison system. What began in 1952 led to Peggi becoming the first woman to hold an assistant warden position in Louisiana and one of a select few women to hold such a position nationwide.
It was a man’s world, but Peggi’s determination propelled her to her ultimate job: Assistant Warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
She grew up in Atlanta, attending Spencer Business College in Baton Rouge after graduating high school. She moved to Angola in 1952, at the tender age of 18, with her husband Carl, a newly hired prison employee.
Peggi raised her daughter Debbie and sold Avon to the community located inside the prison gates. When Debbie started school Peggi took a job with a construction company erecting new buildings at Angola. She soon traded this job for a Steno III job at the prison’s record office.
Sitting in the same chair as the years went by, she constantly took on more responsibility. She knew if she was to rise through the ranks, she’d have to better her education, so she started carrying 18 hours at LSU-Baton Rouge, driving 120 miles every day. She transferred credits from two years she attended Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. She wouldn’t get home until 11:30 pm and was back at the office at 6 am the next day. She earned a general studies degree with a concentration in psychology and sociology.
These concentrations were instrumental in Peggi’s dealing with the inmates. “It can be hard to understand how some men got themselves into those positions,” she said. “I needed to understand.”
Peggi became the first female Assistant Warden at Angola in 1978.
“There’d never been a woman in that position so I knew it would be tough,” she said. “Going in, being a woman was already two strikes against me in a man’s world.”
Governor Edwards directly credited the Talent Bank for Women for increasing the representation and participation of women in state government through Peggi’s promotion.
The publicity that ensued made Peggi nervous in the beginning. “It was frustrating to think that most people in the world thought I was nothing more than a figurehead,” she said.
Peggi credits Warden Frank Blackburn for his trust in her capabilities. He was the most instrumental man in her career.
“He used me in a different way than past assistant wardens,” she said. “As a woman I paid attention to the small details and I’d troubleshoot problems before they escalated. The inmates once refused to work in the fields because the rice they ate with their meals was swapped out for creamed potatoes. I went in, assessed the situation and had it solved quickly. Little things like that can really cause a big problem. Being a woman was an asset in that regard. Women look at things differently than men.”
Peggi said being a woman also made it easier for her to talk to the inmates than some of the male officers. “Running a prison is an awesome responsibility,” she said. “You directly affect the lives of the inmates on a day-to-day basis. You have to exude confidence. The inmates will know if you have any weakness and they’ll play on it. You also need to be able to make decisions under pressure.”
Peggi can be credited as the instrumental force behind several improvements at the prison:
Creation of a satellite of LSU-Eunice at Angola for employees, where she earned an associate’s degree in law enforcement. This was the first of its type offered in the state away from the university campus.
Managed the prison’s public relations office, identification department, chaplaincy department, mail room, Angolite newspaper, and records office.
Initiated a Training Academy at Angola, which opened in 1979.
Peggi left Angola April 5, 1985, transferring to Ball Juvenile Facility, which was closer to where her aging parents lived. She cared for them until they passed. Now Peggi is a patient with Hospice of Natchitoches, battling cancer and recalling a time when her determination and work ethic gained her celebrity status as a woman successfully filling a role that was traditionally thought of as a man’s job.
“I know a lot of men might’ve been surprised a woman could work at a prison system like that, but I did,” said Peggi as she smiled proudly.