Kentucky’s Female Corrections Officers Say Sexual Harassment Is Part Of The Job

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Nicole Irwin/Ohio Valley ReSource

Natalie speaks to a reporter about her claim of sexual harassment while an employee at the Kentucky State Penitentiary.

Natalie didn’t say anything when her fellow correctional officers at the Kentucky State Penitentiary made crude jokes or talked about her body. She knew that kind of talk came with the job.

She didn’t complain when a coworker pulled her into a cell and kissed her, she said, because she didn’t think anyone would take her complaint seriously. She didn’t report it when another colleague pinned her against the wall and tried to kiss her without her consent after a work event, either.

But finally, in August 2014, she felt a fellow correctional officer took things too far to stay silent. Natalie remembers Stewart Walker saying he wanted to show her something in a part of the Eddyville prison she’d never been to before. He immediately exposed himself and started kissing her, she said, and she struggled to get away.

She didn’t want to make a formal complaint, but she didn’t want to work alongside Walker anymore either. Her supervisor filed a harassment report when she asked to be moved. That report led to a finding that Natalie broke rules for “sexual contact” with a coworker.

“It definitely felt like no one had my back,” said Natalie, who agreed to be identified by her first name. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting doesn’t generally name potential victims of sexual harassment.

A portion of the findings in Natalie’s investigation.

Natalie’s complaint is one of at least 120 reports of sexual harassment filed by employees of the Kentucky Department of Corrections and Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice between 2013 and 2017.

That’s nearly as many complaints as the rest of Kentucky’s executive branch agencies, combined.

Read our series: “Sexual Harassment Allegations In Kentucky Government

Walker resigned during the investigation. He said in an interview with KyCIR that he remembers the interaction with Natalie differently: He said it was consensual. He was surprised when she reported it as harassment, and he said he didn’t know she was punished later.

“We were both in the wrong,” he said. “I believed it was extremely mutual. It went way too far.”

In March, KyCIR reported on the inconsistencies in how different agencies in the Kentucky state government handle sexual harassment. The analysis looked at five years of complaints from employees of every executive branch agency except the DOC and DJJ, which took nearly four months to respond to the open records request.

After that story published, the two agencies provided more than 3,500 pages of complaints and investigations combined.

Though corrections and juvenile justice employees make up less than 15 percent of state employees, they account for nearly half of all sexual harassment complaints filed in the last six years, reporting sexual harassment at nearly five times the rate of other state employees.

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley declined an interview request through a spokesman. Representatives from both the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice declined to comment for this story, instead directing all questions to the Personnel Cabinet.

In a statement, Christopher Johnson, executive director of the Personnel Cabinet’s Office of Diversity, Equality, and Training, said that corrections fosters “uniquely intense working conditions” that require employees to be “trained to be especially sensitive to any potential incidents of harassment.”

The vast majority of those agency’s employees work in facilities with incarcerated youth or adults.

“The Justice Cabinet, like all state agencies, encourages its employees to report all concerns to their supervisors, and every allegation of harassment is taken seriously,” Johnson said.

DOC has highest complaint rate in state

The DOC provided documentation of 103 complaints of sexual harassment over six years to KyCIR, the highest number of complaints per employee of any agency in the executive branch. The Department of Juvenile Justice provided KyCIR with 17 sexual harassment complaints, the second highest rate of complaints.

Compared to the rest of Kentucky’s state agencies, both DOC and DJJ substantiated a lower proportion of cases as sexual harassment. Some cases were substantiated as “misconduct,” or for related offenses that didn’t get labeled sexual harassment. In more than 40 percent of cases, documentation provided by DJJ included no determination either way.

But even with those high rates, experts say far more cases of sexual harassment go unreported. Victims may fear retaliation, particularly in a high-stress, high-stakes job like corrections, where employees have to rely on their coworkers to ensure their safety.

Natalie was worried about retaliation. After her supervisor reported the incident with Walker, she felt like her fears came true.

“The next few weeks were very hard,” she said.

Natalie said her coworkers ignored her. She said she was reprimanded for minor infractions like leaning against a cell door, talking to the inmates or being late to rounds all things she said she’d never been punished for before she’d reported.

By the time the prison’s human resources department issued its investigative report, Walker had already resigned. He told KyCIR he left because it was the easiest way to protect his family and his marriage, not because he was guilty.

The investigation noted that Walker violated “policy and procedure” but never says specifically how. Instead, they dinged Natalie for the very things she reported as harassment — going upstairs while on duty, inappropriate conversation and sexual contact with a co-worker while at work.

Natalie said the last straw came when she was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with an inmate, an accusation she strongly denies.

It was a year and a half after she joined the Department of Corrections, and a month after she alleged sexual harassment. Natalie resigned.

“I was good at my job. I showed up, I did what I was supposed to do,” she said. “There was no reward for that in the end.”

‘Boys club’ mentality

Corrections has long been a male-dominated industry. Today, 60 percent of employees at the DOC and DJJ are men. Even the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women has more male employees than female.

Women in corrections are trained to handle male inmates, but they often don’t expect the ‘boys club’ mentality they encounter from their coworkers crude jokes, misogynistic conversation and roughhousing, said Dana Britton, Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.

“In a prison, everything is amplified,” said Britton. “Because prisons are a total institution and a closed environment.”

Britton interviewed female correctional officers for her book, At Work in the Iron Cage.

“What they would say is, ‘The inmates I can deal with. They’re not here by choice. My co-workers are the problem.’”

These jobs can be attractive, especially in the small communities where prisons and detention centers are located. Correctional officers don’t need a college degree, have opportunities for advancement and usually start around $30,000 a year with state benefits.

The price of admission, though, is often dealing with rude comments or inappropriate touching, said Jill Harrison, an associate professor of sociology at Rhode Island College.

In Harrison’s research, she found that female correctional officers use the same language as inmates to describe their work at the prison:

“They talk about ‘doing their time,’” she said.

Before Natalie started working at the Kentucky State Penitentiary, she thought she had prepared for everything the inmates or her coworkers could throw at her. What surprised her, in the end, was the response she got from agency leadership when she reported a problem.

“I thought, working for the state, that would be something that could easily be reported and taken care of,” she said.

Her experience left her as disappointed in the Department of Corrections administration in Frankfort as in the man who allegedly harassed her.

“These women, especially in an environment like that, they deserve to know that they are working in a safe environment,” Natalie said of prison workers. “There needs to be people in charge that take it to heart, that care about these women.”

She says leaving the penitentiary was a “blessing in disguise.” She went back to school and now works as a nurse.

But the experience has never truly left her, Natalie said. “It leaves an emotional scar.”

Complaints lost, ignored until lawsuit

Lisa Suliman loved being a correctional officer. She had worked at Little Sandy Correctional Complex since before it opened in 2005.

“It was kind of like a little family and everybody was really close,” she said. “Just everybody got along.”

But getting along meant going along. Suliman learned to brush off sexual comments and ignore the bawdy jokes her co-workers made at her expense. Once, she said, another employee cornered her in the office and put his hand down her shirt.

Rather than reporting it, she turned her desk around so it was harder to reach her.

“You just find a way to work around it,” Suliman said.

Eleanor Klibanoff

Lisa Suliman, Jennifer Dennis and Colleen Payton, pictured left to right, were part of a sexual harassment lawsuit that brought a $1.6 million judgment against the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

That’s what she planned to do in 2013 when her supervisor, Stephen Harper, walked in on her in the bathroom, penis exposed. She said he repeatedly asked her to touch it, until she yelled and ran out past him.

Even then, she thought, “Hell no, I’m not doing a report.”

“If I do a report, they’ll fire me,” she remembered thinking. “I’m just going to keep my mouth shut.”

But that afternoon, as Suliman’s shift was wrapping up, Harper came back for more. She said he jumped on top of her and pinned her down on the desk. She said she pushed back against him and begged Harper, a sergeant, to get off of her.

“He just laughed it off,” she said. “Everything’s a joke to him.”

But it wasn’t a joke to her. Suliman said the assault affected her deeply. She started having nightmares and eventually got on anxiety medication. She couldn’t bear to be touched by her husband, who was battling cancer at the time.

Stephen Harper hung up on a reporter who called his home and did not respond to repeated follow-up calls.

Suliman said she complained to a supervisor after that incident in 2013. She never heard back from anyone at Little Sandy or the Department of Corrections, and she said an HR manager told her they lost her complaint. She left the next year.

Her allegation was not one of the more than 100 complaints turned over in response to KyCIR’s open records request. Neither was Colleen Payton’s 2013 complaint, which was provided to KyCIR by her lawyer.

Payton said the prison’s human resources administrator told her an investigation was conducted, and her claim that Harper inappropriately touched her and exposed himself was deemed unsubstantiated.

“It was a slap in the face,” she said. “It made me feel like they didn’t believe me, that they were calling me me a liar. They weren’t going to do anything about it, and he was going to continue to keep doing what he was doing.”

The numbers show Payton’s experience isn’t uncommon. Investigators concluded that sexual harassment occurred in about a third of all complaints in the last six years at the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections.

Complaints from employees of all other state agencies were substantiated as sexual harassment at a higher rate: nearly half the time.

And that stamp of substantiation matters, because punishment is rarely handed down unless a sexual harassment allegation is affirmed. But in 88 percent of cases where a DOC or DJJ investigator determined sexual harassment occurred, the perpetrator was punished.

Payton said, in her experience, there’s no incentive for women to make these claims up. She said employees who are seen as troublemakers don’t get promoted or given better shifts.

“For that reason alone, if these women are coming forward, something is going on,” Payton said.

A line from the report in Payton’s case.

Harper’s name did eventually come up in the documents provided to KyCIR, in a different sexual harassment complaint filed by other Little Sandy correctional officers in 2014. The entirety of the DOC’s investigation is 11 pages, including a cover sheet and seven pages of hand-written complaints. Like in nearly 20 percent of the cases, the documents provided to KyCIR don’t say whether the allegation was substantiated or not.

Johnson of the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet, who issued a statement on behalf of the Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice, did not respond to emailed questions about Harper or the case.

Eleanor Klibanoff

Colleen Payton and her attorney, Bethany Baxter, look at complaints filed against Sgt. Stephen Harper at Little Sandy Correctional Complex.

Payton, Suliman and two other women brought a lawsuit against the DOC for its handling of their complaints against Harper. In March 2017, the jury ruled in their favor and, pending an appeal, the DOC will have to pay them $1.6 million for allowing severe and pervasive sexual harassment to create a hostile work environment.

“How many more women have to go through sexual assaults at the hands of Harper because nobody’s listening?” said Suliman. “How many women does it take to open your eyeballs? How many lives gotta be ruined?”

Of the four women who came forward and sued, only Payton remains working at the prison. She said it has been a challenge, but she’s not backing down.

“Why should I give up my 20-year retirement, what I’m entitled to, just because they have a problem with me standing up for myself?” she said. “I’m a little stronger than that.”

In the wake of the ruling, the state Personnel Board agreed to reinvestigate the women’s claims against Harper. But for now, he’s still working there as a supervisor.

This story has been updated to correct the time frame for the records detailing sexual harassment complaints.

Nicole Erwin of the Ohio Valley ReSource contributed to this report. Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eklibanoff@kycir.org or (502) 814.6544.