It was a sweltering summer day when Taronica White first stepped foot into the yard as a new correctional officer at a maximum-security federal prison in Coleman, Fla. Before she started her shift, her supervisor gave her an oversize jacket to wear on top of her uniform. “In this facility, females cover up,” she said she was told.
She quickly came to understand why, she said recently: In those early days, she got catcalled, received sexual threats and saw inmates exposing themselves and masturbating in front of her, she recalled. “It was in the hallways, in the cells, on the compound. It was everywhere,” she said. She wrote up 10 incident reports for sexual misconduct in her first week. During the previous decade working in federal corrections, she recalled writing up only two incidents.
“Why is this acceptable?” she remembered thinking.
White, who now lives in Laurel, Md., 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 last year agreed to settle 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 for the women say it is one of the largest settlement agreements to date for a class-action lawsuit alleging sexual harassment. At a time when the country has become more attuned to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, the case also serves 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 Bureau of Prisons did not respond to several requests for information over four days about how the terms of the settlement agreement are being implemented. Tammy Padgett, a unit manager at the prison and a class representative overseeing the settlement, said sexual misconduct by inmates remains a serious problem, but she said management is slowly making changes. “The awareness is there; that has been half of the battle,” she said.
For decades, women were employed only in women’s prisons. That started to change in the 1970s as legal barriers broke down and more women entered the workforce. Now they represent nearly 30 percent of correctional employees, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The category includes officers in prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and community-based facilities.
“Women are drawn to these jobs for the same reason anyone would be — they are stable government jobs with low entry requirements,” said Dana Britton, director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University and the author of “At Work in the Iron Cage,” for which she interviewed dozens of male and female prison guards.
Prisons can provide some of the most attractive jobs in rural, economically depressed areas. But women’s increasing presence in men’s prisons has often sparked conflict with the men who have traditionally held those jobs. “If even a girl can do it, it’s not very masculine,” Britton said.
Lawsuits around the country have alleged hostile work environments in corrections settings.
The D.C. Department of Corrections in 1999 agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit for $8.5 million brought by female employees who alleged a pattern of rampant sexual harassment, often by male supervisors, that included unwanted touching, sexual propositions, lewd comments and retaliatory behavior against those who resisted.
More recently, a lawsuit brought in 2015 by female correctional 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 correctional officers at both the Denver and Cook County, Ill., 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 correctional 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 said she was on an evening patrol in a secure housing unit where she saw 25 to 30 inmates masturbating in one night. “It felt like a free for all. . . . I was afraid for my safety.”
The women alleged management did little or nothing to protect them. Superiors often failed to process incident reports and in some cases shredded them. Women said they were told “Toughen up,” “Your skin is too thin,” “This is a male institution,” or “You’re ‘too pretty.’”
A female officer said a warden told her, “These men are in for life; what do you expect?”
The underlying message to women was clear, they said: You should not be here.
The male-dominated culture in corrections is slowly beginning to change as more women rise through the ranks to leadership positions, said Shirley Moore Smeal, president of the Association of Women Executives in Corrections and executive deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
“But we still have growth to do,” she said. “Some people would still rather not have women work in corrections at all,” a dynamic she said feels “very recent and very real.”
To handle sexual harassment, supervisors must set clear expectations and enforce them, she said.
“Whether there is one instance or 1,000 — procedures should be in place, with avenues available for women to report and to know that their concerns are going to be addressed,” she said.
“That is the culture that we need to cultivate on a daily basis.”
White knew what a respectful workplace felt like because she had worked at four other state and federal prisons before she got to Coleman and felt supported when she reported sexual misconduct.
White first went to work at a Florida state prison in 1991 when she was 20 years old and a new mother. She had a high school diploma and a year of being in the military. “I needed the best job I could get,” she said.
At first it was just that — a job, she said. But four years later, when she got hired at a federal prison in Miami, she saw some lasting benefits, including a pension, the chance for early retirement and different career paths. “I started realizing this will be a good career for me,” she said.
She went back to school for a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s in criminal justice with a specialization in drug treatment.
White transferred to the federal correctional complex in Coleman in 2005, after a new maximum security prison had opened, because she was in search of new opportunities. The sprawling federal complex has five prison facilities, including low- and medium-security facilities and two high-security penitentiaries.
When she got there, she said, “It was a culture shock. It was so hostile to female staff.”
Women conformed to the environment, she said, by wearing their uniform polo shirts and pants two sizes too big or wearing handmade smocks over their uniforms.
“You change the way you think, the way you dress, the way you look. Even your soap — you want to make sure you use unscented soap; whatever means you will bring less attention to yourself,” she said.
At first she thought the behavior could be explained by the fact it was a maximum-security prison and she had worked only in lower-security facilities in the past. But after a while, she noticed men were often not being disciplined and basic procedures were not being followed.
“That is when I started asking questions: Why are these inmates not being held accountable?” she said.
White became active in the union, serving as a point of contact for women who were experiencing harassment. She got calls sometimes late into the night.
The union set up meetings over several years with managers, including male and female wardens, to talk about the widespread harassment. When no real changes occurred, in 2010, they hired a D.C. lawyer.
Their lawsuit was a long shot, the women were told, but hundreds of female employees rallied around the effort and created an emotional network for each other.
In 2013, they won the first crucial victory, when an administrative judge certified the plaintiffs as a class. “I thought, ‘Okay, finally, somebody is listening to us,’” White said.
In July 2016, in response to a motion for summary judgment, the judge ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, affirming that the women had been subject to severe or pervasive sexual harassment. The only major issue remaining for trial was whether the U.S. Department of Justice was liable for the sexual harassment. The government agreed to settle the case.
By the time the case was being settled, White had moved to D.C. She took a job as a compliance officer within the equal employment opportunity office at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It was a rare opportunity, but she felt guilty leaving behind other women still struggling at Coleman, she said.
These days, she wears a business suit and enjoys the predictability of processing reports in her quiet cubicle, while helping to root out discrimination in other workplaces.
“I’m just happy this came to light,” she said about the settlement. “I want anyone to know that a female working in any male-dominated field should be treated with the same level of respect.”