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California Pays $1.1 Million in Prison Sexual Harassment Suits

In August 2002, California prison officials agreed to pay a settlement of $400,000 to former guard Terri Sanchez in the latest in a series of suits for aggravated sexual harassment filed by female guards at the California Correctional Center in Susanville. The total amount of settlements and awards over the past two years is $1.1 million. Federal District Judge William B. Shubb said, "Essentially, Sanchez claims that from the moment she began working at the Department of Corrections [CDC] until the moment she left [three and one half years later] ... she was unable to escape from unwanted verbal and physical advances of a sexual nature and was ridiculed because of her gender."

When she complained of the sexual harassment, fellow guards labeled Sanchez a "rat" and a "filer" and ostracized her. Shubb noted that the evidence she presented "suggests that retaliation continued to happen despite the CDC's efforts to investigate and punish alleged retaliatory acts." The stress this caused resulted in Sanchez's taking three stress leaves and ultimately receiving disability retirement because she had become "incapacitated for the performance of her duties ... based upon her psychological condition," according to Cal-PERS.

Fred Johnson, the chapter president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is one of the guards named by Sanchez. She alleged that he and other guards used filthy language and made obscene gestures to her and that two lieutenants and a sergeant were sometimes present when this occurred. Johnson would allegedly stare at her private areas, make offensive comments, and touch her. A female sergeant testified that Johnson possessed virtual immunity from disciplinary action. The warden, Johnson, and an employee relations officer all admitted that Sanchez's complaint against Johnson was never investigated.

In 2001, former guard Cindy Costello, represented by attorney Robin Perkins, won a jury award of $612,000, plus interest of $10,000 against CDC and $75,000 in punitive damages and interest of $10,000 against a former CDC lieutenant. Jurors in the trial expressed dismay at the CDC's handling of sexual harassment. Former guard Edna Browning-Overstreet and nurse Donna Hopson, both represented by Perkins, settled for $50,000 each.

CDC officials alleged that they now have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and no complaints of that nature have been received since Warden Roy Castro took over in November 2000.

Source: The Sacramento Bee

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