Wearing yellow shirts in a sea of standard-issue khaki, the handful of women who worked in Winnipeg’s jail in the 1980s stuck out.
Their uniforms, holdovers from an earlier time, sometimes drew comments from the older inmates. They’d take one look at the colour of their attire and toss out a remark such as: "Oh, looks like you’ve been here almost as long as Marilyn!"
Believed to be the first female correctional officer in Manitoba, Marilyn Poor wore her yellow uniform with pride — long after the province dropped the word "matron" from female officers’ job titles and decided male and female jail guards could dress the same at work.
Poor died in September, at age 77, predeceased by her husband Jim, who also worked in corrections.
By the time she retired in 1999, Poor had worked inside four correctional institutions and witnessed dramatic change from the days when women hired as matrons inside Winnipeg’s Public Safety Building jail were expected to look after only the female inmates — and bring coffee to the male duty officers.
The province hasn’t officially confirmed Poor was indeed the first female correctional officer hired in Manitoba, but when she started at the old Vaughan Street Gaol in 1969, she already had previous years of experience as a guard at the notorious Prison for Women in Kingston, Ont.
Throughout her 30-year career, with few, if any, female role models starting in the field before her, she was a mentor to the young women and men who came after.
"What did I learn from Marilyn?" mused Donna Tarko, a retired correctional officer who worked with Poor starting in 1980 at what is now the Winnipeg Remand Centre. "Not to take s--- when you don’t need to take s---. And I don’t know how else to put that.
"She taught me to stand in my truth, knowing that, ‘If you know you’re doing a good job, don’t let somebody else tell you you’re not.’ And that is what I carried through my whole career."
In her own way, Poor was passing on hard-earned lessons.
"Because she did it. And she did it against the old-school guards, where a woman’s place was in the home," Tarko said. "That was the attitude."
Born Marilyn Gale James in Pine Falls, Poor was the oldest of four siblings raised there, Dauphin and Rainy River, Ont. She looked after her younger sister and brothers until she left home to join the military.
Growing up in a waste-not household, her early attempts at baking — imperfect pies, cakes or cookies — would end up hidden away in her brother’s sock drawer as she practised her culinary crafts.
"I never knew what I was gonna find in my drawer," recalled Poor’s youngest brother, Calvin James, who now lives in Florida.
"She’s 10 years older than me, and her job was to babysit. So I think that’s where she learned her skills of looking after people who were bad," he said with a laugh.
At work, she didn’t talk about her personal life; in her personal life, she was close-lipped about work. But Poor’s poise and perception were often the first things people noticed about her.
Her military training, combined with keen observation skills and approachability, earned her respect in a career where staff had to be ready for anything.
"Marilyn was very good at reading people and dealing with different personalities and teaching those of us other females who came in. I think she did a great job at telling us when to stand up, and when to just say, you know, ‘Don’t worry about that, let it slide,’" said Donna Murphy, a former correctional officer who worked alongside Poor for 12 years and now lives in Texas.
Day after day, whether Poor was making the rounds to the cells, booking in new prisoners, staffing the control room or, later, the front reception desk, her co-workers watched as she used her dry wit to defuse tension, putting fellow guards and inmates at ease in some awful situations.
"If somebody was having a bad day, you could just go and sit down and she could calm you down," Murphy said. "She could calm down inmates; (she) just made it an easier place."
"There were many a time we’d be crying, we’d be laughing so hard because of something Marilyn would have (said). Because her humour was so dry, she would catch you," Tarko recalled.
Her wit wasn’t reserved for colleagues. In calm moments with respectful inmates, she’d try to make them laugh with a lighthearted, observational joke, Tarko said.
"Maybe something the police officer did or maybe something the (duty officer) did, just to lighten the load for the individual that’s going to be detained. She just had a knack."
When policy changes came into effect in the 1980s that resulted in female correctional officers working with male inmates housed on the fourth floor of the former Public Safety Building, Poor "could fall in with one of the guys. It was a smooth, seamless transition," said Dave Cole, a retired correctional officer who worked with her for more than 28 years.
"All of a sudden, there’s a female on the men’s floor," Cole said. "And they put her through her paces to see what she’s all about. And she shined every time."
Other retired correctional officers interviewed by the Free Press echoed those sentiments as they reflected on their years working with Poor.
"If there’s trouble, she was never scared to walk into a unit and say, ‘You know what? This is what we’re going to do,’ and that’s it. She held her ground, and she was just a good officer all the way around," said Richard Giesbrecht, who said he considered Poor part of his work family, a big sister to him.
"We used to work nights, and around Christmas time, in the old place in the Public Safety Building, she used to do stuffed peppers, and I’ll never forget. That woman could bake and cook like you’d never believe."
Through her career, Poor met her husband and maintained lasting friendships. Jennie Beyak met Poor while they were both "matrons" in 1977, and became one of her best friends till the end.
"I guess maybe a lot of her nature and my nature matched up pretty good," Beyak said. It was important to them to be fair and non-judgmental while they were dealing with inmates, she said.
"You just treat them like another person, and treat them the way you would want to be treated, and just be present."
In retirement, they were snowbirds for a few years with their husbands, spending winters in Palm Springs, Calif., and meeting at Tim Hortons or Robin’s Donuts when in Winnipeg.
"We always shared things, and when we were going for coffee, it seemed like we probably each made that first move to pay for something, you know, because that’s the way we were, that’s the way she was," Beyak said.
"Just a beautiful person."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.