You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘sexual harassment in Maine Corrections’ tag.

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HALLOWELL — One corrections officer spread a false rumor that the new female officer at the state prison in South Windham was a stripper.

Another one called her “Genitalia,” instead of her real name, which also began with a “G.”

She was asked by a colleague if he could measure her buttocks. When she said no, he did it anyway. She was asked about her favorite sexual positions and to describe her breasts.

When her complaints were not taken seriously, she quit her job and filed sexual harassment and retaliation complaints against the Department of Corrections with the Maine Human Rights Commission, detailing her claims in a sworn statement.

The state settled the case. Cost to taxpayers: $20,000.

A beginning state trooper – a male – was placed under the supervision of a male sergeant, who took him on assignments to secluded locations, rubbed the trooper’s inner thigh and talked about skinny-dipping. The sergeant gave the trooper a rug and told him how good it felt to lay naked on it, according to the trooper’s sworn statement.

The trooper got a transfer, but the sergeant called him regularly, making comments about penises and oral sex and suggested they take a naked sauna together.

The trooper filed a sexual harassment complaint and the state settled the case out of court. Cost to taxpayers: $50,000.

A corrections officer was threatened on a website run by anonymous corrections staff after she complained of sexual harassment. Cost to taxpayers: $137,500.

Retaliation in the Human Services department, disability discrimination in Public Safety, sex discrimination in Corrections and on and on for a total of 45 such cases settled by the state in the past 10 years.

• The cost to taxpayers for a range of alleged bad behavior by state employees towards their fellow workers in the past 10 years is almost $1.85 million.

• The state has spent about another $500,000 to defend itself in the cases.

• Forty-four percent of the cases came from two law enforcement departments – Corrections and Public Safety, home of the Maine State Police. Those 20 settlements cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

• The most common charges were sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and retaliation, the latter often in response to filing a previous charge.

• Of the 19 state employees who said they experienced sexual harassment or discrimination, two-thirds were women.

• In all of the settlements, the state admitted no liability.

No tracking by department

State law requires that all new employees receive sexual harassment training their first year in the job, according to Assistant Attorney General Susan Herman.

Herman said her office does not track the claims to find out where there might be a chronic problem.

Public records do not include any disciplinary action that may have been taken in the 45 cases.

Some details kept secret

The settlement agreements – legally binding documents signed by the state and the employee – are often written in a way that prevents full public disclosure.

For example, in 34 of the 45 cases, in return for the settlement, employees and the state agreed not to disclose the terms of the agreements.

The secrecy goes even further in the 21 cases that have non-disparagement clauses. Typically, they state, “Both parties agree that they will not disparage the other.”

In 82 percent of the cases, the process began with the employee filing a complaint with the commission. (The others filed civil lawsuits.) The commission, a state agency established in 1971, investigates complaints of discrimination from public and private employees.

Webbert, the employment attorney, said, “Based on representing many state employees … I have observed that the worst problems … are in the law enforcement areas. … These are the areas that most often have leadership that sends a message to the rest of the organization of hostility or indifference to civil rights requirements, especially equal treatment and respect for women and workers with same-sex sexual orientation.”

Payments from state budget

The settlement payments don’t come from traditional insurance; the state is self-insured for these cases. That means the cash comes directly from the state budget.

The Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s prisons, is currently assessed $101,000, 10 percent of the total self-insurance budget, while it only has 6.8 percent of the state’s 18,500 employees. The reason is the disproportionate number of settlements in Corrections.

The department’s employee discrimination settlements were one reason the Legislature asked its investigative agency to evaluate Corrections in 2009. The Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability report was called “Organizational Culture and Weaknesses in Reporting Avenues Are Likely Inhibiting Reporting and Action on Employee Concerns.”

The report said intimidation, retaliation and distrust within Corrections kept a lid on exposing internal problems. Combined, the practices “appear unethical” and “expose the State to unnecessary risks and liabilities.”

Recent progress

According to two long-time state Human Resources officials, in the past two years there has been a push in state government to deal more effectively with discrimination and harassment.

The change was at least partially a reaction to the costly settlements.

She also praised a new attitude in Public Safety, which she traced to a new head of the state police, Col. Robert Williams.

Joyce Oreskovich, human resources director for the state, said “(Williams) is much more interested in fairness and equity” than previous management.

The two women said there’s been a shift in Corrections, also, under Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who took the job in early 2011.

“Very early on, Commissioner Ponte began talking about changing the culture in Corrections,” Shippee said. “I am definitely seeing an interest in swift and firm discipline that they’re not wavering on. That is one of the best ways to get across that we’re taking this seriously, if people are held accountable for these behaviors.”

‘They use a lot of retaliation’

One of the incidents that let to the OPEGA study was the 2008 case of Pamela Sampson, a corrections officer at the state prison in Warren.

In her lawsuit against the state, she said she was sexually harassed by a sergeant who was later fired for sexually harassing another officer.

When she complained to management, she said they retaliated by investigating her on charges of sexually molesting inmates.

She was later cleared, but she ultimately left the state job because of the stress and concern for her safety.

The state denied she was sexually harassed and that the sergeant was dismissed for harassment, but admits the charges against her “were not substantiated.”

The state settled her claim in 2007 for $66,000. Only six of the 45 claims were settled for a higher amount.

Although Sampson’s settlement has a non-disclosure and non-disparagement clause, she was willing to be interviewed.

“If you speak about anything against these guys (in Corrections), it’s not good,” she said. “They use a lot of retaliation. That’s why everything was thrown out in my case: They tried to create a false investigation against me.”

Sampson now lives in Bangor and is looking for a job in security.

“I wanted to continue working at my job, and I miss it very much,” Sampson said. “It’s just really hard right now.”

From the case files

Examples of discrimination charges from court documents and complaints filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission:

Bets on her sex life

The corrections officer was hired in 2001, one of the few females in that job. (The employee is not being identified because of the salacious nature of the allegations.) Among the claims in her sexual harassment lawsuit:

• Some fellow officers “had a betting pool about whom and when (she) would sleep with first,” including inmates.

• Rumors circulated that she “was willing to perform fellatio for $20.”

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• She claimed her supervisor was trying to force her out because she had complained about the sexual harassment. One example she cited involved a report she said was designed to undermine her: that she witnessed a male officer demonstrate how he could touch his nose with his tongue.

According to the report, she said: “I can’t believe he can do that. I think I’m in love.”

In her court filing, she claimed she never made the remark. Instead, she said the officer was ordered by the supervisor to fabricate the comment. In the state’s response to that charge, it agreed that the officer admitted he did not hear the offensive comment, but denied that he was ordered to make up the claim.

The female officer eventually quit the department when she said behavior and comments by officers and a supervisor created “a hostile work environment.”

While the state contested some of her allegations, it eventually paid a lump sum cash settlement to her for $65,000.

The kissing supervisor

From 2007-2008, Trish Smith was a juvenile program worker at the Department of Corrections Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston. Her lawsuit against the department for creating a hostile work environment and retaliation details the case of a supervisor known for his advances towards female employees.

The suit, citing Smith’s allegations and also affidavits from other employees, is unusual in that the state admits some of the behavior.

Some examples of what the state admitted:

• The supervisor “made inappropriate comments and jokes of a sexual nature, inappropriately touched and hugged and attempted to kiss” Smith and demonstrated similar behavior with other employees.

• In March 2004, the supervisor “intentionally snapped” the bra of an employee.

The state denied some of the other claims by Smith, including that management failed to keep her supervisor away from her, as they had promised to do after she complained.

Smith’s suit said she felt forced to resign because of the unwanted contact with the supervisor.

The state settled for $69,500.

There is no public record of what happened to her supervisor.

— Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

Contact MCPIR at mainecenter@gmail.com or on the Web at pinetreewatchdog.org.

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