Women Prison Employees Routinely Face Harassment
Women who work in federal prisons are outnumbered by male colleagues and inmates, they must learn to conceal themselves as much as possible because they routinely face harassment. “They never even see what you are wearing,” said Octavia Brown, a supervisor in Victorville, California, of the inmates she oversees. “They see straight through it.”
Some inmates repeatedly grope and expose themselves in the presence of women guards. But, probably the worst part about the whole thing is that male colleagues tend to overlook or actually encourage behavior and the women are deterred from reporting any wrongdoing.
When an inmate thrust his penis against Jessica Hodak, a secretary in California, and threatened to rape her, she was pressured by her manager to just let it go, she said in a lawsuit. When an inmate groped Melinda Jenkins, a guard, she was ordered to downplay what had happened to her, according to a pending complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Wynona Mixon, a case manager reported being raped by an inmate and suddenly found herself facing incarceration herself after being criminally charged with raping her attacker.
In 2010, the EEOC issued a report claiming The Federal Bureau of Prisons systematically mishandled harassment claims and that retaliation was “unusually high.” Currently, the bureau has more than 10,000 female employees, but women say little has changed. They are still being mistreated and hardly anything is being done about it.
“Once you go through it, you’re pretty much blackballed from the government,” said Quantina Ponder, a correctional officer in Miami who complained about a higher-ranking officer. “I know if it’s any kind of promotion or anything that I work hard for, I’ll probably never get it because of my situation.”
In May 2017, the House Oversight Committee opened an investigation into the Bureau and said that despite allegations of sexual misconduct, “the BOP continued to award bonuses to top administrators.” That same year, the Bureau agreed to pay $20 million to female employees at the Coleman prison complex in Sumter County, Florida, after a judge found that managers had routinely ignored complaints about masturbation by inmates in front of female employees, known in prison as “gunning.”
Women at Coleman had learned to avoid areas known as “gun ranges.” One of the more than 135 women who provided testimony in that case said it routinely happened in the hallway, the shower and the activity room. “I probably saw 25 to 30 inmates masturbating during this one shift,” she said. Another women recalled, “It was the most humiliating and embarrassing incident I had ever been through in my life. I was terrified.”
“It’s a male-dominated world. It’s a chauvinistic world,” said Joey Rojas, a prison union organizer who helped file the Coleman lawsuit. “The awareness is there; that has been half of the battle,” said Tammy Padgett, a prison unit manager.
The Bureau itself said it would not discuss individual cases, but “allegations of misconduct are taken seriously” and can be referred to the Office of Internal Affairs or the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, adding, “We are committed to ensuring a safe workplace that is free of discrimination and harassment and dedicated to the principles of equal employment opportunity.”