Meet Mary Norman: Leading the way for women in New Jersey corrections work 1968-1993
Mercer County Report, August 1973. Mary becomes the first female officer in the Mercer County corrections system.
Mary in her sergeant's uniform
1968: “An acquaintance contacted his connections at the women’s jail, and sent me there to apply for a job. I studied hard, learned the procedures, took the test, and passed. I was the third Black person who was ever hired, and everyone wanted to know how I got there."
1973: “The Officer Training course was a three week course that included proper note taking, report writing, legal procedure, ethics. The whole class was all-female corrections officers and sheriffs in New Jersey.”
1977: “I passed the sergeants’ exam, but I had to literally fight with the administration to be promoted to sergeant. When an opening came in the male facility, they couldn’t pass over me. They did not have that position in the women’s section. They probably thought I would not take it because it was in the all male section of the institution. They tried to discourage me. Friends pushed me to go ahead take this position, saying, ‘We know you can do it.’"
“I was the first female they allowed to work at the Mercer County Correction Center in an officer position. After that, the floodgates were open. Other women applied, and came in as officers. I was making a contribution to women’s progress and didn’t even know it. These men never had a female superior to them in rank before, so they made things difficult. I loved my job. But my stress was at a high level, and, believe me, the wild thing is that the stress was all from the administration and some of my racist coworkers. Not from the inmates, who were supposed to be the dangerous people. If a new inmate came in and said, ‘Who’s that bitch?’ ‘That’s a lady,’ the inmates would say. ‘You do not talk about her that way.’”
"When an inmate’s mother or father died, and I checked out that the family was destitute, I’d drive him to the funeral myself without charging. The other officers didn’t like me doing it for free, but I did.”
1983: Winning promotion to Lieutenant rank, Mary became the first female lieutenant In the Mercer County corrections system. “It took five people to replace me in the job I’d done as a sergeant.”
1988: Mary became a professional member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “The ACLU looked out for the rights of inmates, helped them pursue valid legitimate grievances though they didn’t have money. There was such disparity: a black guy gets more time than the white counterpart… that is not right. That is still going on today. The warden and other officers were bothered that I was a member.”
1990: Mary took prisoners out into the community to do community service. “We redid the old library on Clinton Ave in Trenton. You can’t believe the talent, how much they knew how to do. My guys worked so hard for me. The guard was a little racist, he had a hard time accepting me as his supervisor. When he found out that I would stand behind him and support him, and go at people to defend him, he turned completely around. He couldn’t do enough for me.”
“I talked with social workers who would come if I had a person leaving the correction center who had no place to go… This was not part of my job responsibility… not any of my business… but I wanted to help them straighten their lives out.”
1992: “Muslim inmates holding a feast at the end of Ramadan were required to have supervision from an officer. They were not very liked by the other officers, so the group asked me to do it, and I agreed. I helped them with their feast, and the food was wonderful. They gave me a certificate of ‘Outstanding service to the Islamic community’ and said it was the best feast they had ever had.”
“I believed in rehabilitation, which our new warden did not. One time, to punish me for something I allowed the inmates to do that he thought I had no authority to do, he took away all of my duties, and for almost two weeks I had to report to work and do nothing in a tiny room in the back. Then he sent me over to inmate services, where you make phone calls for inmates and things like that. I turned the job into a training program to teach pre-release inmates how to fill out work applications, how to dress for interviews.”
2020: “Years after I retired, when my son drove for UPS in Trenton, men would stop him on his route to say they remembered me. ‘“Are you the Lieutenant’s son?’ they’d ask him. ‘If it weren’t for your mother,’ they’d say, ‘I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.’ You never know if you helped anyone in your life, or if you helped them make a change."
2022: "I think of the women I trained. One of them even became an Assistant Warden… I trained her. Because I stayed in it, lasted, persevered, I trained those women and enabled them to advance. I opened the door and, because I didn’t give up, I made it possible for them."
Mary and Miss Alice
Mary and Mr. George
2002-2010. Mary took up residence back home in Elk Creek, Virginia, where she provided daily care for her mother and step-father through their declining years.
The Equal Justice Initiative
A portion of the proceeds from These Walls Between Us will go to the Equal Justice Initiative.
“I wish I could have been involved in Bryan Stevenson's wonderful work.”
Mary with her two sons, Greg and Dennie Norman
Letter from Bryan Stevenson commending Mary for her work.