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Feds reach $2M settlement with Alabama county over sexual hostility in jail

Female guards at the Mobile County Metro Jail claimed they were frequent targets of sexual harassment by male inmates and jail administrators did little to stop it.

MOBILE, Ala. (CN) — One female jail guard reported it was her regular duty to inspect male inmates’ genitals after they worked a shift in the cafeteria to ensure no food or utensils that could be used as weapons were smuggled into the general population. Frequently, those male inmates would get an erection prior to the inspection or make sexually suggestive comments while the guard was performing her job. 

Another female guard was stationed in front of the showers, where she said male inmates would stare at her while they masturbated or request she watch them as they masturbate. Yet another female guard worked at the Mobile County Metro Jail for more than two decades, where “the prevalence of inmate sexual harassment increased over time as the population of corrections officers assigned to the housing units became increasingly female, and as the jail’s punishments for inmate harassment became less severe or non-existent," according to a federal lawsuit.

Often the female guards would file disciplinary reports about the inmates’ harassment — hundreds of reports were filed since 2001 — but senior officers were dismissive. Complaints would be dismissed for lack of evidence or clarity while those few inmates who were punished over time faced no more than a few days in administrative segregation. 

In 2015, 14 former and current female guards at the jail brought allegations of discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming they were unlawfully subjected to a sexually hostile work environment, but the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office failed to settle the complaint. 

The Department of Justice intervened and filed suit in 2021, noting female guards at the jail face frequent sexual harassment by male inmates “who expose their genitals, masturbate, and direct sexual slurs, sexual propositions, threats of sexual violence, and sexually degrading comments at female employees.”

According to a news release Monday, the Justice Department reached a draft settlement agreement last Friday with the MCSO to resolve those claims. Although the sheriff's office admitted no wrongdoing, it agreed to establish a $2.02 million victim’s compensation fund for the benefit of the plaintiffs and establish new policies for inmates and guards to prevent and respond to reports of sexual misconduct. 

“Employers must take appropriate action to protect their employees from sexual harassment in the workplace,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Just like any other workplace, jails must take steps necessary to ensure that female employees are not subject to a sexually hostile work environment in any form.”

The conduct allegedly occurred under the administration of Sheriff Sam Cochran and Warden Trey Oliver, both of whom have since retired. But after the lawsuit was filed in 2021, Cochran denied the claims, alleging reports of sexual harassment had decreased since administrators repaired broken locks and installed new cameras in the jail. Cochran also said many guards who filed reports later refused to cooperate with investigators.

As recently as January 2023, MCSO indicated it would challenge the lawsuit

In addition to establishing the victims’ compensation fund, the agreement also requires the sheriff “to develop a comprehensive inmate sexual misconduct policy; train all jail employees on the new policy related to inmate sexual misconduct; maintain a dedicated housing area to house inmates found guilty of sexual misconduct; and appoint an Inmate Sexual Misconduct Disciplinary Hearing Officer to monitor and track compliance with the new inmate sexual misconduct policy.”

In a statement Monday, first-term Mobile County Sheriff Paul Burch indicated the Justice Department's announcement was premature. 

"The case is in the hands of the federal court for review,” he said. “We have not agreed to all the terms of this settlement and it has not been signed by our office. We will comment on the settlement once it is finalized and signed."

According to the Justice Department, the lawsuit was filed as a part of the Civil Rights Division’s initiative to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.

“The initiative is aimed at eradicating sexual harassment in state and local government workplaces,” the statement explained. “It focuses on litigation, outreach and development of effective remedial measures to address and prevent future sex discrimination and harassment.”

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Regional

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