By Christopher Zoukis
In one of the largest-ever employment sex discrimination class-action settlements, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and 524 current and former female workers at the nation’s largest federal prison complex for males have ended a lawsuit launched in 2013. The agreement could bring class members as much as $20 million in total awards.
The female workers at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando, Florida – who worked as correction officers, educators, clerks and nurses – claimed they were regularly subjected to lewd and threatening speech, gestures and conduct, against which their supervisors and other administrators failed to take effective action.
The allegations of inmate misbehavior at the gigantic complex were detailed and horrific. Groping incidents and rape threats were common, and female staff reported male inmates would exhibit their genitalia when female staff came near them. A frequent complaint was that inmates would openly engage in self-abuse in plain view of female staffers, sometimes cutting holes into the pockets of their prison uniform pants so as to be able to do so with the hands in their pockets.
The case is also unusual in that BOP is being held responsible not for actions of its own employees, but for failing to take sufficient measures to protect its female workers against harassing behavior by non-employees — the inmates in the huge prison complex.
Lawyers for the class of plaintiffs claimed prison officials failed to take adequate steps to protect their female employees, and actively discouraged them from writing up incident reports to detail harassment, or even destroyed such reports rather than acting on them. According to the lawsuit’s allegations, prison officials failed to discipline misbehaving inmates, and in some cases even enabled harassing conduct, for example by negotiating with prisoners who cooperated in other ways to assign particular female workers to the inmates’ areas.
The money damages are meant to compensate the Coleman workers for the emotional or physical harm they suffered, and to reimburse them for expenses incurred for treating harassment-caused issues.
The $20 million maximum total recovery under the settlement is conditioned on claims being filed by at least 350 of the 524 female workers in the class. The settlement amount will drop by $40,000 for every class member that total claimants fall below that level. An individual worker’s recovery will be based on a formula that looks at the length of the worker’s employment at Coleman, the type of harm or harassment the worker suffered, and the efforts the worker made to bring problems to the attention of the prison’s management.
Besides the money damages, the settlement commits management to add a variety of new workplace protections for the prison’s female workers. These include more training for staff on sexual harassment, and expanded treatments and psychological screenings for misbehaving inmates. The prison will also be required to post anti-harassment notices on inmate televisions, and inmates who continue harassment will face loss of their privileges.
Another part of the proposed settlement, which has thus far been approved by an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission administrative judge in Miami, would revise prison uniform pants by removing all pockets.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.