According to investigators, White bought one officer a diamond ring and let some drive luxury cars purchased with money from selling contraband.

A 2008-2009 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that most perpetrators of prison and jail staff sexual misconduct were female, a revelation that surprised many people.

"The typical movie version or the TV version has some predatory male officer sexually assaulting a female inmate," said Martin Horn, former commissioner of corrections in New York City and former secretary of corrections for Pennsylvania.

This year, a U.S. Department of Justice study found that the Baltimore City Detention Center had the nation's second-highest rate of sexual contact between staff and inmates, with nearly 7 percent of inmates reporting it.

Smith said the officers in Baltimore may have seen the inmates as available partners, in part because of the disproportionate incarceration rates for African-American men.

"In the community, there's a scarcity of partners, a scarcity of men and an abundance of women, which diminishes [women's] opportunities to have partners," Smith said. "In an institutional setting, the reverse is true."

Some women may form relationships with inmates out of concern for their own safety, Horn said.

"If they can form an alliance with a powerful inmate, that inmate can protect them from other inmates," he said. "And that is made worse in the current fiscal situation, where there is inadequate training and staffing. ... It was never sufficient, and now it's even worse."

Riley and Lyons say the job takes an emotional strength, often formed at home.

"As a woman, you have to respect yourself," Riley said. "You have to have morals and values."

Maryland should examine training and staffing levels at jails, as well as the workplace culture, experts say. Often, female correctional officers "will say, 'I was treated better by the inmate than I was by my co-workers,' " Smith said.

Standards stemming from the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 — a law spurred largely by a report by the organization Human Rights Watch on male prisoner rape — lay out a blueprint to prevent sexual abuse, Smith said. For instance, they address limits on cross-gender searching and supervision of inmates, staffing ratios and training.

A secure job

As the scandal unfolded at Baltimore's state-run jail, the issue of women working with male prisoners drew widespread attention.

The website Slate ran a piece called "Should There Be Female Guards in Men's Prisons?" An article on Rolling Out, a news and entertainment website, asked readers, "Should females be allowed to work as guards in male prisons, or is this a rare case that will likely never happen again?"

Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of the Baltimore City House delegation, said allegations in the federal indictments speak to issues of honesty and integrity, and background screenings — not to gender.

But Anderson, a Democrat and longtime member of the House Judiciary Committee, also said that the assignment of officers to inmates of the opposite sex raises questions about safety, prisoner privacy and sexual relationships.

"I would rather not have women working at men's facilities, and certainly not having men working in women's facilities," he said. "If you put a man and a woman together on a prolonged basis, you're asking for problems."

Riley calls the notion that women shouldn't work with male prisoners "ludicrous."

"Are you saying I'm incompetent?" she asked.