$71,000 Settlement in Iowa Prisoner’s Sexual Harassment Claim
by David M. Reutter
A former Iowa prisoner received a $71,000 settlement after being sexually harassed at her prison job in a case that established prisoners have civil rights protections with respect to employment under Iowa state law.
While incarcerated at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility in November 2005, Melissa Lee Renda, 43, was employed as a clerk in the Receiving and Discharge Department – a job that paid $4.60 per day. Her supervisor was prison guard Jim Ackles.
Ackles made comments on a daily basis about Renda’s body and his sexual desires. As his infatuation grew he began to bring her food, candy and coffee. He also professed his love for her.
To protect himself, Ackles instructed Renda not to speak to other male guards and threatened to have her transferred to another prison if she failed to comply with his orders or reported his sexual harassment.
After overhearing Renda mention the imminent release of a new CD by Eminem, Ackles procured a copy and violated prison rules by bringing it to her. He also sent $300 to her mother, who then mailed it back to the prison. When it arrived, Ackles brought it to Renda and told her it was from him.
A month later, in June 2006, prison officials received an anonymous letter that described Ackles giving money and gifts to Renda, as well as his unwanted sexual advances. Renda was placed in solitary confinement for nine days when she refused to cooperate in the ensuing investigation.
After her release from solitary, Renda began cooperating. Ackles used a pretextual reason to fire her from her clerk position a few weeks later. The investigation was completed in September 2006 and found Renda’s sexual harassment complaint “100% credible.”
She then filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission that alleged sexual harassment and retaliation. The Commission closed the complaint after finding prisoners were not considered employees under state law. A state district court affirmed that conclusion, but in 2010 the Iowa Supreme Court held Renda’s status as a prisoner did not necessarily preclude her from employee protections under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. See: Renda v. Iowa Civ. Rights Comm’n, 784 N.W.2d 8 (Iowa 2010), rehearing denied.
Following remand the parties agreed to a $71,000 settlement, which was approved by the Iowa Appeal Board on December 2, 2013. Renda, who had since been released from prison, received $25,000 while her attorney, Roxanne Conlin, received $46,000 in fees and costs.
“One of the things that makes a civil rights remedy important is that prisoners are truly at the mercy of the staff of the guards and need some kind of protection,” Conlin stated. “I think in general our prisons do a pretty good job but in this case, the guard took advantage of his position and there needed to be a remedy.”
At the time of the settlement, Ackles was reportedly still employed by the Iowa Department of Corrections.
Additional source: Des Moines Register
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Related legal case
Renda v. Iowa Civ. Rights Comm’n
|784 N.W.2d 8 (Iowa 2010), rehearing denied