Women workers at Florida prison win class-action status in sexual harassment case

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Dozens of female staffers say they regularly confront groping, rape threats, public masturbation and other serious sexual harassment while overseeing inmates at the large federal prison complex in Coleman, Fla.

But though they say the Coleman prison environment is “saturated with sexual abuse and assaults,” the female workers also complain that the federal Bureau of Prisons has failed to act. In some cases, the employees say, supervisors have simply thrown out written complaints about inmate sexual misconduct.

Now, in an unusual battle that split the Justice Department, the female workers at Federal Correctional Complex Coleman have won a crucial legal victory. With the Justice Department’s eventual support, but over the Bureau of Prisons’ objections, a Miami-based administrative judge has granted powerful class-action status to the aggrieved employees.

“We have to make sure the inmates aren’t running out of control,” Washington-based attorney Cyrus Mehri, who represents the workers, said in an interview Wednesday, “and we have to make sure the Bureau of Prisons takes care of its officers.”

The class-action decision rendered April 9 by Administrative Judge Joy R. Helprin, endorsed last week by the Justice Department, adds clout to the complaint as it proceeds through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Tammy Padgett, for instance, was one of more than 60 female workers to file an affidavit complaining about the Coleman environment, saying she endures “masturbatory behavior approximately once per week.” A Coleman teacher, Eva Ryles, said an inmate in her classroom “masturbated to the point of ejaculation,” while others say inmates have placed sperm in public places.

Vile language is commonplace, the women say, with Ryles adding that “many women have resorted to wearing smocks, jackets or other heavy clothing” even in hot weather in hopes of avoiding harassment.

“I hear offensive sexual comments virtually every day at multiple locations in the institution,” Coleman treatment specialist Taronica White declared in an affidavit. “I routinely hear comments such as, ‘Ms. White, will you come (blank) my (blank.)”’

White added that she rarely experienced such treatment when she worked at a federal facility in Miami “because it simply was not tolerated.”

Citing the “pending litigation,” Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley declined to comment Wednesday.

Located in central Florida, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando, the Coleman complex consists of low- and medium-security facilities and two high-security penitentiaries. All told, the Coleman complex currently houses about 7,100 inmates.

Workers represented by Mehri’s partner, Heidi R. Burakiewicz, first filed the EEOC complaint in 2011.

The class-action certification is not the last word, and further Equal Employment Opportunity Commission proceedings will continue. The certification is important for several reasons, though; notably, it means the complaint now covers more than 360 women who have worked at the Coleman complex since February 2011.

More than 150 of the women already have sought equal opportunity counseling at Coleman, and more than 200 already have contacted legal counsel. The numbers helped convince Helprin, the administrative judge, that the complaint met the standards for a class action.

The decision was further underscored last week when the Justice Department quietly agreed to accept Helprin’s class-action determination.

“The core facts developed thus far, based in large measure on 64 different affidavits, show that women employees of FCC Coleman who came into contact with inmates have been subjected to vulgar, assaultive and graphic sex-based conduct by some inmates,” the Justice Department conceded in a memo dated May 22.

Though saying the class-action question was a “close call,” the Justice Department officials pointed out that many female Coleman workers had recounted similar experiences about how, when they complained, Bureau of Prisons managers “discouraged, destroyed or in some instances downgraded the seriousness of disciplinary reports.”

The Bureau of Prisons had urged the Justice Department to appeal the class-action decision, arguing in a May 15 brief that the judge had “failed to apply the correct legal standard.” The bureau also asserted that the judge “accepted as true, with no evidence,” claims made by the women about the Coleman environment.

Mehri countered Wednesday that “we think the evidence is so overwhelming that we will prevail.” He said he hopes the case leads to specific fixes at Coleman, as well as national standards to protect female workers, in addition to payments for the Coleman women.

“They were treated with the utmost indignity in the workplace,” Mehri said.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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