By Rosanna Abreu de Leon
Slapping, beating, and loveless are the words that describe part of Sandra Elisa Rodriguez’s childhood. Rodriguez, 60, a retired Correctional Officer, wants to let young women know they can make it through tough times. She left behind all the negativity from her past, and is now a great example of a warrior woman.
Rodriguez leaves the gym wearing a purple long sleeve t-shirt matching her sneakers. She enters one of her favorite restaurants, “Tu Casa,” in Queens. Over lunch, Rodriguez shares painful memoirs of her life experiences.
As she takes the first bite of her avocado salad, she begins to talk about her health. Rodriguez has been diabetic since the age of 44. As she speaks, Rodriguez continues to look out the front window of the restaurant. She appeared cautious, but she continued to tell her life story.
Rodriguez only saw her biological father two times in her life. She was raised with a disciplinary mother, a quiet stepfather, and three younger brothers. At the age of 15, she became pregnant by her abusive boyfriend. She admitted that he was the only one who showed her love, even if it wasn’t often.
Her mother did not accept her pregnancy and eventually she asked her to leave the house. She went to live with her child’s father in his home. While living there, he would abuse her often. His mother didn’t treat her right either because she would sometimes cook for everyone in the house except Rodriguez. Eventually, his mother told both Rodriguez and her son to leave. They moved into an abandoned house after they were kicked out.
To finish her education, she was referred to an unwed mother school by her doctor. During the 1970s, young women who got pregnant were not allowed to go back to school because they were considered bad examples.
Talking about her life story, Rodriguez begins to cry. With tears, she confessed that she faced sexual, physical, verbal, emotional, psychological and mental abuse in her early years. At the age of 20, her mother, an old fashioned woman, forced her to get married to the father of her child. Seven years later, she became pregnant again, but this time she was happy about the pregnancy because her relationship with her husband improved. However, when she began working again after giving birth, her husband became jealous again.
None of these struggles stopped her from being a successful woman. Rodriguez demonstrated that she had leadership qualities and became the first female Company Commander
in the history of the New York City Correction Department in 1984. She worked as a correctional officer for 20 years.
While working, she was harassed by superior officials. In 1998, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint with the correction department, alleging sexual harassment,
gender discrimination and retaliation. She won the case and received compensation.
Q: What made you decide to choose this career?
A: While I was in Borough of Manhattan Community College studying to be a nurse, there was a corrections officer recruitment team in the school library. When I saw that the salary was very attractive, I immediately said “I will do this.” It paid much more than being a nurse. I thought that if I became a nurse, I would be emotionally connected to the patients. Also, I felt obligated to be a role model; I knew I had disappointed my mother when I became pregnant and I always wanted her to feel proud of me. I am the first one with a degree in my family. As the oldest sister, I wanted to show my brothers a good example. I wanted to empower myself so that the father of my kids stop controlling me. I even had to carry my nursing books to the bathroom to study because he wouldn’t let me.
Q: Do you feel cops are on duty 24/7?
A: Yes, a cop needs to be available all the time. My schedule was what we called a ‘rotation,’ four days working and two days off. There were 11pm-7am shifts, 7am-3pm shifts and 3pm-11pm shifts. Overtime was not optional. It was mandatory to do 16 hours of overtime plus, if they needed you to continue working you could not refuse.
Q: What did your family/friends think about this job?
A: They did not know all the risk my job required, until they heard all the testimonies from my supervisors at my retirement party. I never told them, because I did not want them to worry about it. But the day they knew, they were surprised.
Q: What did you like the least about your job?
A: The un-professionalism from some of the officers and the prisoners, the lack of respect that some coworkers and supervisors have for the women and the abuse of authority some of the officers used. One time I witnessed an officer abusing a prisoner and I just asked “Do you think that was necessary?” I refused to cover up any of the officers because I was there to follow the rules and regulations; which are care, custody and control inmates. This job is a business. It provides jobs to many people. I think the jail does not offer the prisoners the necessary tools to be prepared for the society when they get out.
Q: Now that you are retired, are you afraid of the prisoners?
A:I am not afraid because the lord protects me. But I go to firearm training once a year and I always carry my personal hand-gun. You never know there have been cases in which the prisoners come out of jail and assaulted the corrections officers. In the training they told us to never answer by the name CO, that is how prisoners call us in jail and if you responded to that name they will know they have the right person and they may assault you.
Q: What motivates you, What are your future plans, Do you have any hobbies?
The Lord is what motivates me. Also, I am a very positive person. I accept my limitations and welcome the challenges. My goals for the future are to help those women that get pregnant at a young age, to teach them with example that their lives are not over and that they can still achieve their dreams. Also, I want to help old people. I love them because I feel they do not get the proper treatment and are ignored. Some of them are because they are ignored by society. I will also like to support the obese people, I felt they are segregated and rejected by people. I will like to get a house in front of the ocean. I want to bless somebody with my house. I would like to have extra rooms in case a friend or family member need to get some rest. Yes, I do have hobbies. I love to work out, I walked a mile to go to the gym, and another mile to come back home. I exercise three times a week. I actually run in a half-marathon. The first time I won 3rd place as the fastest, out of two hundred people in my age group. The second time I won 2nd place and my goal is to do it a third time winning the first place. This time, I will wear a shirt with a sign in the back saying, “You just have been passed by a 60 year old.” I love to cook, but I also enjoy being served, that is why I like dining out.
Q: What is your advice to young people?
A: Do not give strength to negativity. Be positive. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easy, hard work is good for your soul. Don’t be easily discouraged. The word of God says that even when bad things happen to you, something good come out of the bad. You have the power to be the victim of the problem, or to overcome it and be victorious, it is your choice. And the most important thing, to get education, because it empowers you.
The day Sandra Rodriguez was recognized as the first female company commander in the history of NYC Correction Department in 1984. (PHOTO BY SANDRA RODRIGUEZ)