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Iowa Prison Guard Wins $2 Million on Retaliation, Disability Accommodation Claims

by Ed Lyon

Kristine Sink began working as a guard at the old Iowa State Penitentiary in 2003. She was initially assigned to a Clinical Care Unit that housed mentally ill prisoners, sex offenders and prisoners with behavioral problems.

Sink noticed that offenders in the Clinical Care Unit often watched movies that she felt displayed “graphic sexual conduct.” She complained to her supervisors about prisoners making lewd comments to her and masturbating in her presence, supposedly incited by viewing the inappropriate movies. She began a reform campaign that by early 2007 resulted in a movie review committee to screen films before prisoners could watch them.

Still, the same type of movies continued to be shown, so Sink resumed filing workplace complaints until a statewide ban on all NC-17 movies was implemented and R-rated movies had to be reviewed by a warden before they could be shown.

Prisoners blamed Sink for the animated children’s movies and TV programs they were given to watch. Many threatened her openly. One prisoner threw urine on her and another sent her notes telling her he was going to rape her. When she complained to a supervisor about the threats, he allegedly told her she was beautiful and if he were a prisoner he would try to “get with” her, too.

Sink’s complaints began to encompass male guards who shared content from Playboy magazines with prisoners and allegations of sexual harassment by male guards. Two guards were disciplined, then later fired, as a result of her complaints.

In 2012, Sink filed a lawsuit against the prison in state court over the offensive movies that were shown to prisoners and the sexual harassment and threats she received as a result. The court dismissed her retaliation and discrimination claims, and jurors found for the defendants on the harassment claims. She appealed and won a new trial based on a faulty jury instruction.

In the meantime, Sink had been assigned to a control room for her safety. Days after losing the trial in her lawsuit, though, she was assigned a position supervising prisoners.

“They put me right back into the general population knowing that the inmates were hostile to me and had made threats of rape, beating me and murder,” she said.

Sink was then placed on sick leave during an internal investigation before being cleared and returned to work. When prisoners were moved to a new maximum-security facility in Fort Madison in August 2015, she was told there was no job available that could accommodate her stress-related medical work restrictions. She was fired on January 10, 2016.

Sink sued again, alleging retaliation by prison officials for their actions after she lost her first lawsuit and failure to accommodate her stress-related medical condition. At trial in March 2018, the jury found in her favor and awarded $2 million in damages – including $175,000 for lost earnings, $1,250,000 for future lost earnings and $575,000 for emotional distress. Specifically, the jurors found prison officials had retaliated against her and failed to provide reasonable accommodations for her stress-related PTSD resulting from the threats and harassment she received from prisoners. See: Sink v. State, Polk County District Court (IA), Case No. 05771 LACL134016.

“This has been a long battle for her and we are thrilled that this verdict gives her some justice,” said Emily McCarty, one of the attorneys who represented Sink. “She’s fought long and hard.” 

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Related legal case

Sink v. State