Women Working in Male Prisons Settle With Federal Government for $20 Million
When Taronica White first checked in to her brand new job as a correctional officer at a maximum -security federal prison in Coleman, Florida she was greeted by her supervisor, a huge oversized jacket was thrown at her and the words “in this facility, females cover-up.” Taronica soon came to understand why females were to “cover-up.” She was the recipient of catcalls, sexual threats as well as seeing the inmates exposing themselves and masturbating in front of her. Taronica wrote up ten incident reports for sexual misconduct in her first week on the job. She had only written up two such reports in her previous ten-years serving as a corrections officer. Taronica remembered thinking to herself, “Why is this acceptable?”
Taronica, who now lives in Laurel, Maryland and works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the district, would go on to become the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit alleging sex discrimination and a hostile work environment at what is the nation’s largest federal prison complex. The federal government agreed to settle the case for $20 million and signed on to more than 20 pages of procedural changes to improve employees’ safety, including improved training about sexual harassment, better monitoring for processing incident reports and new prison uniforms without front pockets to deter inmates from masturbating under their clothes.
Attorneys representing the women say that it is one of the largest settlement agreements to date for a class-action lawsuit alleging sexual harassment. The case came at a time when the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace has been on the forefront of the national conversation and has also served to highlight the harsh conditions that women often face in the traditionally male-dominated field of corrections, particularly in male prisons, as well as the potential for change, they say.
“These women walked into a high-security prison every day, knowing that they were going to be harassed by inmates and told by male colleagues and supervisors that they shouldn’t be there,” said Heidi Burakiewicz, lead attorney for the plaintiffs and a partner at the D.C.-based firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch.
“If this group of women can stand up and fight and win and turn the workplace into a better place, I can’t imagine a workplace anywhere where it couldn’t happen,” she said.
The decades now, women have only been employed in women’s prisons only. That only started to change in the 197o’s as legal and social barriers were broken down and more and more women entered the workforce. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, women now represent nearly 30 percent of correctional employees. The category includes officers in prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and community-based facilities.
Prisons can and do provide some of the most attractive jobs in rural, economically depressed areas. But women’s increasing presence in men’s prisons has sparked conflict with the men who have traditionally held those jobs. Lawsuits all over the nation have alleged hostile work environments in correctional facility settings.
In 1990, D.C. Department of Corrections agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit for $8.5 million brought by female employees who made allegations of a pattern of rampant sexual behavior, often by male supervisors, that included unwanted touching, sexual propositions, lewd comments, and retaliatory behavior against those who resisted.
In 2015, a lawsuit brought by female corrections officers at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility alleges that male employees regularly harassed their female colleagues by urinating and masturbating in front of them, propositioning them and physically threatening them.
Female corrections officers at both the Denver and Cook County Illinois jails filed suit against their government employers in the past two years for not intervening as they experienced sexual harassment from inmates, including rape threats and masturbation.
The lead plaintiffs in the Coleman lawsuit represented more than 500 women who were employed as corrections officers, teachers, nurses, or office workers at the prison. In hundreds of pages of legal documents, female officers detailed often-daily harassment they endured in the course of their jobs. One woman reported that while on the job one night, patrolling the secure housing unit, she saw 25 to 30 inmates masturbating in one night.
The women have alleged management did little or nothing to protect them. Superiors often failed to process incident reports and in some cases shredded them. Women were told to “Toughen up,” “Your skin is too thin,” “This is a male institution,” and “You’re too pretty.” A female officer said that a warden once told her, “These men are in here for life; what did you expect?” These women saw an underlying message they said: You should not be here.
Contact Jones Brown Law
Whether you are entering the job market for the first time or were recently terminated, it is important to understand your rights as a worker. Both federal and state governments have enacted a wide range of employment laws protecting employees from discriminatory treatment, unfair labor practices, unsafe work conditions, and more. Employment law governs the rights and responsibilities between employers and employees. Most of the laws and statutes that fall under employment law are meant to protect the employee from unfair and unsafe working conditions, but they also help to protect employers. Working environments can be chaotic and complex. The law offices of Jones Brown wants to make sure you are aware of your rights as an employee or employer. If you feel you have been wrongfully treated at work or on a job, our experienced attorneys know exactly what to do.