Female Texas Prison Guards Allege Sexual Harassment, Abuse, Discrimination
by Ed Lyon
During the 10-year period ending in 2017, over 3,500 complaints of sexual harassment and gender bias were filed against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The state’s largest agency, TDCJ employs 37,000 people, including more than 22,000 guards – 38 percent of whom are female. Women have worked as guards at men’s prisons in Texas since a 1988 Equal Opportunity Act lawsuit.
Sgt. Tanisha Woods said sexual harassment is less prevalent at women’s prisons in Texas. Yet some female guards at men’s facilities have voiced a preference for working with prisoners rather than abusive male coworkers – despite the fact that prisoners sometimes expose themselves, even masturbating in the presence of female staff members.
“You think it’s the inmates you have to worry about,” said a woman formerly employed as a guard, who asked not to be named, “but it’s actually the people you work with.”
The TDCJ now requires bi-annual “discrimination training” and maintains an Employee Assistance Program consisting of free counseling. Prison officials stress that the department’s culture “is not what it once was,” touting a “zero tolerance policy” toward sexual harassment and gender bias. As a result, Sgt. Woods said the TDCJ has done “a good job with the training.”
Over 44 percent of all TDCJ employees are female, many holding administrative positions such as librarians, secretaries, attorneys, parole officers, accountants and high-ranking officials like Lorie Davis, director of the TDCJ’s Correctional Institutions Division. That post was also held in the 2000s by Janie Cockerell, who broke ground as the department’s first female senior warden.
In late 2016, an assistant warden at the Telford Unit routinely sexually harassed a female guard, miming masturbation and intercourse in his office, and even “sexting” her a photo of his penis. He denied the claims and said he meant to text the photo to his wife, but was fired following an internal investigation.
In the summer of 2017, another female guard at Telford was raped by a male lieutenant. Attorney Louise Tausch sued the TDCJ on the victim’s behalf and obtained a $250,000 settlement. Over a year later, the lieutenant was fired but never indicted.
“We won the lawsuit,” said the guard, who no longer works for the TDCJ and asked to remain anonymous. “I still feel defeated because what happened to me is still going on – and the guy who did it to me is still free.”
Tausch filed another suit against the TDCJ in June 2018, alleging that an unnamed female sergeant at the Allred Unit was sexually harassed by Major Johnathan Eastep. Video footage captured him pinning the sergeant against a fence and grinding his hips into her buttocks, while breathing down her neck.
An internal investigation found no criminal conduct, concluding that Eastep’s behavior did not rise to the level of assault. He was transferred when the woman filed a complaint in June 2015, five days after the incident. But the next month she said she was targeted with an investigation for a use-of-force incident – apparently in retaliation.
Former TDCJ spokesperson Michelle Lyons, who began her career as a guard, agreed there are still incidents of sexual harassment but insisted they are “isolated.” After she was fired for allegedly falsifying her time cards, Lyons obtained a $63,000 settlement in her own gender bias claim.
The problems with sexual harassment in the TDCJ first received a public airing in 2004, when the department’s then-assistant director, Sammy Buentello, was accused of raping a co-worker, groping another and exposing himself to other employees. He was convicted and sentenced to a term of probation, retiring from the TDCJ with his pension even as the agency paid out $600,000 to settle lawsuits arising from his sexual misconduct.
But some women have more to fear at the TDCJ than just sexual harassment. In November 2017, Maryanne Denner sued the department for providing prospective employers false background information about her work history. The former prison gang expert left the TDCJ in 2003, winning a $120,000 sexual harassment lawsuit – in retaliation for which, her new lawsuit claims, prison officials continued trying to sabotage her career.
“I still get phone calls, emails, text messages from people saying, ‘I was wrongfully terminated because I’m a woman,’” she said.
Kathleen Day, a Corpus Christi attorney who represented the victims in the lawsuits involving Buentello, said at the time that “a code of silence” existed in the TDCJ which ensures that “women who come forward face retaliation for breaking that code.”
Pushing back against that idea, the TDCJ’s Lorie Davis – the agency’s highest-ranking female employee – said the “days of a male-dominated culture are long gone.”
“We have a lot of women that move up through the ranks,” she added. “I believe that I’m a testament to a woman’s ability to promote in our agency,”
But former Texas guard union president Lance Lowry, who still works for the TDCJ, said “the good old boy system” persists. Given the proportion of women holding guard positions, he noted that “38 percent of the sergeants should be [women], too.” Yet based on 2017 data, 27 percent of sergeants, 26 percent of lieutenants, 25 percent of captains and 21 percent of majors and assistant wardens in Texas state prisons are female.
TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel said the selection of supervisors is made “through a competitive interview process.” After passing an exam, a guard becomes eligible for promotion and is placed on a list and ranked by exam grade and date to await an opening. Candidates appear before a promotion board for further evaluation of their overall qualifications and suitability for the particular job position.
Not all guards seek promotions. A 35-year veteran Ramsey Unit guard, who requested anonymity, has never sought to be promoted. He reasoned that the pay increase was too small to offset the increase in responsibilities, as well as the disruption to his personal life from being on call more often. He also expressed discomfort with the idea of becoming a supervisor over his former peers. Lastly, he noted that supervisors do not draw overtime, which in some years had enabled him to earn more than a senior warden.
Regardless, female guards in the TDCJ should have the same opportunity for promotion and advancement as men – though statistically they do not, while they are more likely to be subject to sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, www.correctionsone.com