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Sexual Harassment Scandal Rocks Connecticut DOC

by Matthew T. Clarke

The Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC) has been rocked by allegations of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and illegal sex between guards and prisoners. The scandal began on August 8, 2002, when 15 female guards filed two separate federal class-action civil rights lawsuits against former DOC Commissioner John R. Armstrong, alleging pervasive sexual harassment by male coworkers.

The complaints alleged that pornographic material was displayed by male guards and prisoners in the presence of female guards; male guards exposed themselves to female guards; male guards touched female guards in sexually suggestive ways; used condoms were placed on a female guard's car; a female guard was asked to join a male guard's prostitution ring; a female guard being physically threatened when she refused a male co-worker's sexual advances; female guards were denied restroom breaks; and supervisors ignored female guards' complaints about sexual harassment and retaliated against them for complaining. The alleged retaliation for refusing and/or reporting sexual advances included threats of physical violence, ordering supervisors to give defendants poor job performance evaluations, and giving promotions to less-qualified personnel.

The suits were filed on behalf of the DOC's 1,700 female guards. One 111-page complaintprepared by attorney Antonio Ponvert III of the Bridgeport firm of Kosoff, Kosoff & Biederdetails numerous allegations, of sexual harassment naming 94 defendants, including Armstrong, deputy commissioners Peter Matos, Jack Tokarcz, Dennis Coyle, and fifty male guards and supervisors. Named plaintiffs include Maureen Allen, Regina T. Arngo, and Paulette Williams of MacDougall-Walker CI (Correctional Institution); Denna Stanley, Tanjorie R. Godwin, and Danielle Locas, of Corrigan-Radgowiski Correctional Center; and Sandra R. Gawron and Barbara J. Hawkins of Osborn CI. The second suit, in a 43-page third amended complaintprepared by attorney Michelle Holmes of the West Hartford firm of Sack, Spector & Karstennames essentially the same defendants and Nancy Orr, Neva Lloyd, Doreen Evans, Patricia Katz, Maggie Gomez, Debra Sholes, and Deviji Wilkins, female DOC employees, as plaintiffs.

Maureen Allen's story illustrates the type of institutionalized sexual harassment the women experienced. After rebuffing a male supervisor's sexual advances, a supervisor advised a prisoner Allen was escorting that there were no cameras in an area they would pass through and maybe the prisoner "could get lucky" with her there.

"I have to talk myself into going to work each day," said Allen who has a 2-year old son, Nathaniel, "I come home from work and just cry."

Denna Stanley was reassigned to an office facing the cell of a known public masturbator. When she complained, a male employee asked about details of the masturbator's anatomy. Complaints about the incident were ignored.

"I can't leave," said Stanley, "I have a family to take care of."

The lawsuits accuse Armstrong of "condoning, tolerating, even rewarding" harassers. "Commissioner Armstrong knows full well that it is unspoken department policy to cover up harassment, to lie to investigators and to turn a blind eye to the illegal, pervasive and dangerous culture that has become the norm under his jurisdiction," said plaintiff's attorney Richard Bieder of Bridgeport.

According to one lawsuit, Major Richard Matos was one of the frequent harassers. However, Matos's actions were allegedly covered up because he is Deputy Commissioner Peter Matos's brother. The state has previously paid $30,000 to settle a 1994 suit in which former prison counselor Wendy P. Moher claimed Matos sang love songs to her, made sexual remarks, and simulated masturbation in her presence. In May 2002, Matos was placed on paid leave until an internal investigation cleared him of the sexual harassment charges.

However, the investigation found him guilty of using profanity in a February, 2002, staff meeting and that, combined with "past incidents," which included using racial epitaphs, was sufficient to justify demoting Matos three-steps to prison guard in October, 2002, according to MacDougall-Walker CI Warden Brian K. Murphy.

The allegation of the use of profanity came to light during the course of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Matos by Lt. Nancy Orr. Matos claims that the demotion is excessive punishment for the charges and is politically motivated because of his brother's position and the DOC's need for a high-profile scapegoat. He appealed the demotion. On March 21, 2003, Matos won his administrative appeal and the demotion was reversed. Matos received a 5 day suspension instead.

Also noted in one suit were details of a $240,000 settlement paid to former Deputy Commissioner Maria Houser who alleged that Armstrong, Tokarz and Coyle frequently sexually harassed her during meetings. The harassment included Armstrong and Tokarz discussing prisoners engaging in anal and oral intercourse, Armstrong's comments on the alleged sexual conduct of female employees, and Coyle's complaint that there were too many female supervisors at York CI. Houser was also given a job with the state's Department of Labor as part of the settlement.

In addition to suffering retaliation when they complained, plaintiffs were discouraged from reporting the incidents of sexual harassment to DOC's Office of Affirmative Action (OAA), which is responsible for ensuring a proper work environment. When complaints were made to the OAA, the OAA took no action unless the complaining person submitted a CN 2101 form. The OAA did not volunteer to the complaining person that a CN 2101 form was required before a complaint would be treated as "formal." Even if the CN 21071 form was completed, the form was often returned for not being "specific" enough. If the complaint was acted on, the OAA always informed the alleged harasser of the complaint and offered to transfer the person allegedly harassed as the only available solution to the complaint. Transferring the alleged victim was also the only solution most wardens offered when informal complaints were made. Often following a complaint, if a transfer was refused, the alleged victim would be placed under the direct supervision of the alleged harasser.

The plaintiffs claim many other victims are afraid to come forward. "There are dozens, dozens of women out there who have probably gone through worse than I have, but are scared," said Williams, "But it is better to put it out there. It makes the harassers kind of scared."

"If you're going to walk out on the ice, you might as well dance on it," said Hawkins.

The suits ask for monetary damages, for the department to keep files on sexual harassment complaints and fire the most severe offenders, and for a more thorough sexual harassment education program. In a move it claims is unrelated to the suits, in August 2002, the DOC initiated additional sexual harassment education in partnership with the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, a state-funded women's rights group. At the same time, the DOC increased the amount of sexual harassment education from two to three of the 40 training hours guards are annually required to attend.

Some view the additional training as a praiseworthy, but miniscule step in the right direction.

"It's a Band-Aid approach for a patient that is hemorrhaging," according to plaintiff's attorney Antonio Ponvert. "Training is 1 percent of the problem we are bringing to the attention of the public and the court in this lawsuit."

Indeed, some DOC employees have yet to get the message. In the same week as the first new training session it was revealed that York CI laundry Supervisor Richard Garofalo and Corrigan-Radgowski CI guard Adam McMahon were fired for having illegal sex with female prisoners. Also revealed was the fact that Major Lora A. Castronova, Captain Wayne Ford, and Lt. Patrick Hensch were placed on leave after Hensch allegedly brought an obscene birthday cake to York CI.

"It wasn't just a cake vaguely resembling a penis," said an anonymous guards' union official, "They detailed it."

In September, 2002, Eric Wolliston, a male guard at Hartford Correction Center, filed a sexual harassment complaint against Rachel Smith, the union steward at Hartford and a vocal leader on such issues as sexual harassment and racism within the DOC. Wolliston alleges that, when he requested a ride from Smith, who was patrolling the perimeter at Hartford, she responded by saying, "I wonder how you would look in a bikini." Wolliston claims Smith made a similar comment before.

"I want the public to know that men as well as females are being harassed," said Wolliston.

Adding to the DOC's woes, on September 6, 2002, former guard Ronald Barraza was arraigned on two counts of first-degree sexual assault, three counts of risk of injury to a child and one count of fourth-degree sexual assault in connection with charges that he repeatedly sexually assaulted the 10-year old daughter of a friend over the past three years. Barraza, who faces up to 70 years incarceration, is being held in lieu of $500,000 bond.

In light of the scandal, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Curry called for Armstrong's suspension and urged Governor John G. Rowland to conduct an immediate investigation into Armstrong's handling of sexual harassment claims. On February 4, 2003a week after Armstrong made a controversial comment comparing executions to euthanizing a pet and two days after a Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities report which criticized his handling of sexual harassment in the DOC was leakedArmstrong resigned. The report said that Armstrong's administration suspended, transferred, and gave assignments to employees to make them unavailable to investigators of sexual harassment charges.

Armstrong was scheduled for a renomination hearing in February, but would have faced stiff opposition from the National Organization for Women, other women's interest groups, the guards' union, and prisoners' rights groups upset about his comment on the death penalty and his decision to send 500 prisoners to Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia (where two of the prisoners died) to ease overcrowding in the 19,000-prisoner system.

On February 3, 2003, the State Commission on Human Right and Opportunities (CHRO) released a draft report which documents that sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in the prison system and recommends almost 80 changes. The recommendations include adopting a clearer definition of the sexual harassment, conducting more timely investigations, putting greater emphasis on prevention of sexual harassment, and eliminating a policy requiring complainants to sign a statement that they understand they will also be investigated and may be punished.

Corrections Commissioner John J. Armstrong announced his resignation the day after the report was released, a decision he claims is unrelated to the release of the report. Armstrong had claimed that there was no widespread sexual harassment in the prison system, citing a low number of official complaints. However, CHRO investigators said the low number of complaints was due to a lack of confidence in the system and the fact the complaining employees had at times been disciplined for "inappropriate banter."

The report said that the prison system officials investigationg sexual harassment allegations often misunderstood or misapplied the legal standard applicable to sexual harassment, that the seriousness of the allegations were often downplayed, that the harassers were often not disciplined and that the complainants were often threatened with disciplinary action for failing to report harassment the day it occurred.

The prison system has hired a new director of affirmative action and initiated new policies and procedures to improve case tracking and identify repeat offenders.

On March 17, 2003, governor Rowland named Theresa Lantz, 48, corrections commissioner, the first woman to hold the position in Connecticut history. A 26 year DOC employee, Lantz was deputy commissioner at the time of her appointment. Lantz told media she would not tolerate sexual harassemnt in the agency. See: Orr v. State, Civil Action No. 3:02-CV-1368 (US DC D CT), Allen v. Armstrong, (US DC D CT).

Sources: Hartford Courant, Waterbury Republican-American, Connecticut Post, AP,

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Related legal case

Orr v. State