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Florida: Judgment for Female Prison Staff Alleging Sexual Harassment by Prisoners Affirmed

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) was properly held liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for failing to remedy a sexually hostile work environment created by male prisoners at the Marion Correctional Institution (MCI).

PLN previously reported the verdict in this case, which resulted in 14 female employees at MCI being awarded $45,000 each. The award came after a jury found the FDOC had failed to remedy sexually offensive conduct by prisoners, including the frequent use of abusive language and pervasive “gunning” – the notorious practice of prisoners openly masturbating in front of female staff – in MCI’s close management units between 1999 and 2002. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.32].

In affirming the district court’s judgment, the Eleventh Circuit held that precedent established that “employers may be held liable under Title VII for harassment by third parties when that conduct creates a hostile work environment.”

While prisons cannot eject unruly prisoners like businesses can remove rude customers, the FDOC cannot refuse to adopt reasonable measures to curtail harassment by prisoners, according to the appellate court. The evidence at trial not only showed the FDOC failed to take such measures, but that guards allowed the offensive activity to continue.

In the wake of this lawsuit the FDOC took steps to curtail “gunning.” Prison officials created a new disciplinary infraction to punish intentional masturbation in front of staff members that not only includes segregation time but also can result in suspension of visitation privileges. The FDOC further implemented rules that prohibit prisoners from looking out the door windows of their segregation cells when not addressing staff who have come to their cells.

The May 7, 2010 opinion by the Eleventh Circuit rejected the FDOC’s arguments that the harassment was not sex-based and that prison officials were entitled to an affirmative defense requiring the employees to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the FDOC. That defense only applies when the hostile environment was created by a supervisor, which was not the case here.

The district court’s judgment was affirmed. See: Beckford v. Department of Corrections, 605 F.3d 951 (11th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Beckford v. Department of Corrections