by Matt Clarke
On September 9, 2019, the Denver City Council voted to pay $1.55 million to settle a lawsuit brought by female deputies who worked at the Denver jail. The settlement included $609,228.78 in attorney fees, and each of the 15 plaintiffs will receive $62,715.42. The suit complained of unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment and a sexually hostile work environment.
Female prisoners, who make up about 22 percent of the jail’s population, are housed in a single, open-barracks-style pod. There is no separation for seriousness of offense or propensity for violence, except for temporary punishment in segregation. Male prisoners are held in multiple pods, some of which have a closed cell-block-like design, and are separated into multiple custody classifications according to seriousness of offense, propensity for violence and other factors
The female deputies were frequently required to supervise male housing pods, and a few had standing assignments to supervise male prisoners, often as the only deputy in the pod. The male prisoners consistently subjected the female deputies to sexual harassment that included masturbation, exposing themselves and simulating sex acts – all done while staring at the deputies. Verbal harassment included calling the female deputies “cunt,” “whore” or “bitch,” or threatening rape, sexual assault or other involuntary sex acts. The prisoners also used sexually charged language and profanity, including while undressed and simulating masturbation. Male prisoners would use sexually harassing language when speaking to each other within earshot of female deputies.
The deputies made log entries of the daily, even hourly sexual harassment and reported it to senior jail staff, but were met with indifference. When they initiated disciplinary action against the prisoners who were sexually harassing them, there was a complete lack of effective action by disciplinary officials, who imposed only token penalties when they imposed any discipline at all. The sexual harassment continued. Further, female deputies were discouraged from reporting the harassment and were told by senior jail staff that it was “part of the job” or that they “should be used to it.”
In two separate lawsuits that were later consolidated, the deputies, aided by Denver attorney Brian T. Moore and Boulder attorney Wilbur C. Smith, filed a federal civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), alleging disparate treatment and a hostile work environment. The lawsuit accused senior staff of knowing about the sexual harassment and doing nothing to prevent or stop it.
In addition to the harassment, the plaintiffs argued that the jail had discriminated against them in the allotment of job assignments, essentially concentrating them in the most difficult, demanding and dangerous jobs – direct supervision of prisoners in large housing units – while more desirable assignments were disproportionately given to male deputies. The most coveted special assignment positions were provided to male deputies even when female deputies who had more experience and were better qualified applied for them.
In conjunction with the $1.55 million settlement, the Denver jail changed its Inmate Handbook to threaten stiffer disciplinary action and criminal charges for prisoners who engaged in sexual harassment, and assigned male officers to female housing units. It also agreed to have a vendor provide 30 minutes of training to each deputy on sexual harassment by staff and prisoners, the penalties for sexual harassment and the jail’s cross-gender supervision policy. See: Walker v. City and County of Denver, U.S.D.C. (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:15-cv-02539-CMA-STV.
Additional sources: westword.com, coloradopolitics.com, patch.com
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Related legal case
Walker v. City and County of Denver
|U.S.D.C. (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:15-cv-02539-CMA-STV