The Unique Sexual Harassment Problem Female Prison Workers Face

The sexual harassment began in 1994, Paula Purdy says, shortly after she started work as a corrections officer at the Denver County Jail. Colleagues made demeaning comments about her body. One male captain made her so uncomfortable she avoided him. But the worst abuse came from inmates, who would make sexual remarks and masturbate at her as she did rounds in their housing areas. Purdy says she reported the behaviour to her bosses, but there were few consequences. “I would get emotional at work several times a day,” she said.
Over the years, the harassment by male prisoners grew more intense, and Purdy says she became reluctant to do everyday things like grocery shop, afraid she’d encounter one of the men on the outside. As a single mother, she felt trapped in her job. “It’s not like you can up and quit,” she said. Eventually, she decided she’d had enough. In 2015, she retired early at age 55, even though it meant taking a reduced pension.
The Denver Sheriff’s Department declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Purdy is one of 15 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in 2015 by female officers at the Denver jail. The women claim that they suffered near-daily sexual harassment from inmates, including rape threats, which the city did not stop or mitigate. They are among scores of female corrections workers across the country in recent years who have made similar claims against their employers.
Last February, a lawsuit involving 524 female employees at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida settled for $20 million; their lawyers say it’s one of the largest class-action sexual harassment settlements in U.S. history. The women alleged they were frequently subjected to lewd comments, gestures and threats by incarcerated men but were discouraged by supervisors from reporting the incidents. According to the lawsuit, one male lieutenant, who was found shredding sexual harassment reports, said: “I don’t want to deal with this bullshit, and if these fucking cunts want to work in a man’s prison they need to learn to deal with it.”
As recent revelations have made clear, women in numerous industries have experienced sexual harassment on the job, often at the hands of more powerful colleagues. But many female corrections officers say they’re in a unique position: Not only do they endure abuse from supervisors or coworkers, they’re also dealing with it from inmates over whom they wield power.
Harassment of female guards by inmates represents a narrow sliver of the predatory sexual behaviour that takes place in America’s detention facilities. Nearly 200,000 incarcerated people are sexually victimised every year by fellow inmates as well as staff members of both sexes. Recent data shows that women, who make up close to half of the correctional workforce in adult prisons, are accused in the majority of staff sexual misconduct cases involving inmates.
But female officers say aggressive sexual behaviour from inmates often contributes to a hostile work environment. Many are fighting back with lawsuits that place the blame not on the men perpetrating the abuse, but on the prison managers that they say enable it. Other female guards say they don’t blame prison administrators. “I believe it’s offender driven,” said Katy Cathcart, who spent seven years working in the maximum security Colorado State Penitentiary and said she experienced countless incidents of sexual harassment from inmates. “If I wrote an incident report every time, I would literally write hundreds a day.”
Nationwide data about how often incarcerated people sexually assault or harass staff is not collected, although such crimes have resulted in loss of privileges or additional jail time. This May, a federal prisoner in Pennsylvania was sentenced to an additional 21 months for masturbating in front of a female guard and ignoring her orders to stop. He’d been previously disciplined twice for the same behaviour, according to PennLive, which also cited a warden and a U.S. attorney who said such incidents were becoming more commonplace in prisons nationwide. (It’s an issue in other parts of the criminal justice system, too. Last week, the Cook County Public Defender declared that staff would no longer enter the courtroom lockup area due to inmates masturbating at female attorneys.)

“If I wrote an incident report every time, I would literally write hundreds a day.”

Some incarcerated men accused of exposing themselves or masturbating in front of women guards have insisted that they didn’t intend to be seen. In some states, even masturbating in private is against the rules, although some experts believe those who are discreet shouldn’t be punished for it. “You have to remember, this is a totally desexualised environment with no privacy,” said Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University who studies sexuality and rape in prison. “Where do people in an institutional setting actually have the ability to exercise that small degree of autonomy for self pleasure?”
But in interviews, former female corrections workers said it was obvious to them when an inmate was exposing himself on purpose, and that they often ignored those who were clearly trying to pleasure themselves in private. They also said they would usually wait for a prisoner to expose himself more than once before reporting him.
Numerous courts have ruled that prison agencies are liable for sexual harassment of their employees by inmates. In 2003, a federal jury awarded $600,000 in damages to a state prison guard who said she was fired after complaining that she was being harassed by naked male prisoners. In 2010, 14 female prison nurses in Florida were awarded $45,000 each after a jury found that prison management failed to stop verbal harassment and pervasive masturbation. One of the male lieutenants in the prison, who allegedly ignored a nurse’s calls for help, later told her, “You were asking for it.”
Women have long fought for respect in corrections, and their rise in the field can be traced back to 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated height and weight requirements for women seeking jobs as prison officers in Alabama. Since then, a series of court cases cleared the path for women to work in men’s prisons, and there’s some evidence that the presence of women has an overall calming impact on a facility. But there’s still resistance.
“Not everybody is excited about having women work in a correctional environment,” said Shirley Moore Smeal, Executive Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and president of the Association of Women Executives in Prison. She said one of the challenges to stopping harassment from inmates is creating an environment where women are encouraged to report it, rather than endure it.
Facilities troubled by inmate sexual harassment of female guards have taken various actions. In 2010, Florida increased the crime of “lewd and lascivious exhibition of genitals in the presence of an employee” from a misdemeanour to a felony offence, and since then, incident reports for such behaviour by inmates toward staff have increased from around 1,300 in 2010 to about 4,100 in 2016, according to Florida’s Department of Corrections. In a statement, the agency said officers in recent years have been instructed to report “even the most minor of incidents such as the throwing of bodily fluids … or possibly accidental exposure to staff.”
South Carolina experimented with pink jumpsuits as punishment, and New York implemented pad-locked garments. As part of the $20 million settlement in the Florida case, prison management agreed to implement changes, including psychological treatment for inmates, new staff training on sexual harassment, and inmate uniforms without pockets, making masturbating more difficult. “It’s definitely improved conditions for women,” said attorney Heidi Burakiewicz, who represented the officers at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex.
For Susan Jones, the fact that this still happens to women as frequently as it does is disappointing. Jones was hired by Colorado’s Department of Corrections in 1985 and became one of the first women in the state to work in a male housing unit. It wasn’t long before she was a target, she said, recalling one prisoner who used “props, objects, and bodily fluid” to get her attention. Jones was eventually promoted to warden and said she used her position to implement new training and policies to try to prevent abuse of female officers.
Jones hopes that recent court decisions, and the nationwide focus on sexual harassment, will improve working conditions for women in corrections. “As a culture, we don’t think we can stop it,” Jones said. “Women need support, and if we get that, culture change can happen.”
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.