A recent Washington Post article outlines how female employees of federal prisons have found themselves repeatedly facing discrimination and harassment from colleagues and inmates alike.
Taronica White, recounts the Post, relayed how misbehavior on the part of inmates can lead to poor conduct on the part of prison staff.
Showing up for her first day at the maximum-security federal prison in Coleman, FL, White was panting from the heat. It was a typical, sweltering summer day in the central part of the state. Shortly before she was due to begin making her rounds, White’s supervisor handed her an oversize jacket.
“In this facility, females cover up,” White says she was told, instructed to wear the coat over her regular uniform.
Understanding what went into the decision was a quick matter: in her first few days working the halls and grounds of Coleman, White was subjected to a vicious slew of catcalls, threats and physical exposures. Inmates masturbated as she walked by, threatened her with rape.
“It was in the hallways, in the cells, on the compound. It was everywhere,” says White.
In her first week, White wrote up 10 inmates for sexual misconduct.
During her previous decade working in federal correctional facilities, notes the Post, she’d only written up two other incidents.
White, who’s since moved away from Florida, was the lead plaintiff in a massive class action suit, claiming the nation’s largest correctional facility propagated sex discrimination and a hostile work environment for women. The payout, settled just last year, was $20 million – the largest of its kind.
On top of suffering a financial blow, the federal government agreed to write 20 pages of procedural changes. Among the alterations were guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment, the monitoring of female employees, and new prison uniforms sewn to deter inmates from exposing their genitals.
But according to the Post and the women it interviewed, the settlement was a long time coming.
In the male-dominated world of corrections, women were told to toughen up – or get out.
“These men are in for life – what do you expect?” one female guard claims a warden told her.
White herself tried to rationalize what was going on around. She wondered if the difference between Coleman and her past places of employment boiled down to grit – while the Florida facility was maximum-security, White had been placed with lower-level offenders for the past decade.
But after spending enough time on the job, she noticed something strange: many of the men she wrote up weren’t disciplined, and basic procedures seemed scantly followed.
“That is when I started asking questions: Why are these inmates not being held accountable?” asked White.
Despite numerous complaints to wardens and her male colleagues, White says their indifference drove her to seek legal counsel in 2010.
Initially told that a successful suit would be a longshot, hundreds of women working in corrections wound up rallying around White.
It took six years for the case to settle, with small victories being won along the way. The most recent – and perhaps most significant – was a judge’s assignment of blame to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
While White no longer works in prisons, she still holds a position with the Bureau – as a compliance officer in a D.C. office.
“I’m just happy this came to light,” White told the Post, speaking of the settlement and its many consequences. “I want anyone to know that a female working in a male-dominated field should be treated with the same level of respect.”