ATLANTA (CN) – The 11th Circuit upheld a jury’s $630,000 verdict against the Department of Corrections for ignoring the persistent sexual harassment of female staff by inmates at a Florida prison.
Melanie Beckford and 13 other women, who worked mostly as nurses at the Martin Correctional Institution in southern Florida, sued the department over civil rights violations in 2001.
They said inmates often used gender-specific epithets such as “cunt,” “whore,” “bitch” and “slut,” and frequently “gunned,” or openly masturbated in their presence.
The situation was particularly bad in close-management dorms, where inmates posing a threat to the general population were kept in isolation, the women claimed. Inmates would often report a bogus medical emergency just to harass the nurses, they said.
“The inmates often would ejaculate on the cell windows and through the food slot or flap on the cell door, sometimes when female staff were standing at the door,” the ruling states.
The women say they suggested solutions, but prison management disregarded them, repeatedly ignoring complaints and discouraging them from filing disciplinary reports.
The federal appeals court rejected the Department of Correction’s claim that prison officials should be treated differently from other employers.
Prison officials could have taken measures to minimize the harassment, the three-judge panel ruled, as employers need to address a hostile working environment.
The court also rejected the department’s claim that the harassment was not based on gender, citing rulings in which other courts have deemed gender-specific slurs and exhibitionist masturbation sex-based harassment.
The department had also argued that women who work with isolated inmates “made a choice to work in an environment with the ‘worst of the worst.'”
“That the close management inmates are typically crude and even obscene does not mean that their harassment was indiscriminate,” Judge William Pryor wrote.
The court upheld the jury’s $45,000 damage award to each plaintiff.