MIAMI -- Over the objections of its own Bureau of Prisons, the federal Justice Department agreed that female federal prison corrections officers, employed at the Coleman complex near Orlando, Fla., suffered sexual harassment as a class - and they can file a formal complaint and later can sue the bureau for doing nothing about it.
The Justice Department's May 22 approval opens the way for 360 female workers, members of AFGE Local 506, at the prison to take their class complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, and, if necessary, to court after that. The harassment by prisoners has gone on since February 2011.
The crux of the case, according to 64 affidavits filed by women, is that they were repeatedly sexually harassed by inmates at the 7,100-prisoner, 4-building complex. The harassment included "repeated exposure of their genitals, masturbation, graphic comments and other highly offensive and unwanted behavior," DOJ's memo says.
But when the female unionized correctional officers complained, Bureau of Prisons "management either ignored the complaints or responded with tepid and clearly ineffective measures instead of attempting to effectively deal with the issue as required by" federal anti-sex discrimination laws," the Justice Department's memo adds.
"All female employees are impacted by the culture of harassment that permeates the atmosphere at Federal Correctional Center Coleman," the Justice memo, accepting the class certification for the workers, states.
The Bureau of Prisons opposed certifying the woman workers as a class with the right to sue. It said there are four separate prisons at Coleman, that the female workers don't have "a community of interest" that a class action suit needs and that the sexual harassment allegations "vary in frequency and degree."
The prison bureau's "position obscures the core facts and allegations that underlie the motion for class certification," the Justice Department memo, from the agency's own Complaint Adjudication Office, replies. It threw the bureau's arguments out, letting the class complaint go ahead. No date has been set for hearings or the actual start of the case.
An attorney for the female workers as a class told the Miami Herald that the objective of the complaint is not just to fix the conditions at Coleman, but also to get the Bureau of Prisons to take seriously the subject of sexual harassment of its officers by prisoners nationwide - and to create protections for the officers. Some 150 of the Coleman complex's female correctional officers have already had to consult individual lawyers about the harassment.