Lawsuit: DeKalb sheriff does little to protect female jail workers

Former and current employees complain of ‘sexually hostile work environment’

Six former and current DeKalb County jail employees have filed a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Melody Maddox, accusing her of “acting with deliberate indifference to endemic, well-known sexual harassment of female staff by inmates.”

According to the suit filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, sheriff’s office leadership has done little to prevent female workers from being exposed to “dangerous and harassing behavior” in the jail. That behavior, the suit said, has included “inmates constantly ‘popping out’ of cells due to compromised [locks], inmates masturbating within close proximity of female detention officers, and inmates entering communal areas unclothed.”

James Radford, an attorney representing the current and former employees, wrote that his clients were told to issue “inmate discipline citations” when improper behavior occurred, but that did little to stop harassment. According to the lawsuit, Maddox and other sheriff’s office leaders have also said that fixing cell locks is not a priority.

A sheriff’s office spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit, which alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The county does not generally comment on pending litigation.

As recently as January, though, Chief Deputy Randy Akies described the jail as a “deteriorating facility” that was “in grave need of being addressed.” In a meeting with county commissioners that month, Maddox admitted that some cell locks had been “damaged into disrepair.”

The sheriff said at the time that her office had lost more than 100 employees in 2021 alone, creating unsafe conditions for everyone involved.

“We are at risk here,” Maddox said while asking for a budget increase. “This agency is at risk.”

According to 2020 U.S. Census data, about 27% of correctional officers, jailers and bailiffs nationwide are women. Harassment is not new or unique to DeKalb County, nor are claims that supervisors have failed to address such issues.

In 2017, the Federal Bureau of Prisons settled a class action lawsuit brought by female employees of a Florida correctional complex for about $20 million. A similar lawsuit was filed last year against the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois.

The DeKalb County lawsuit asks for unspecified damages to be awarded to the plaintiffs, and that a judge order the sheriff’s office to “take reasonable measures” to protect female employees. The current and former jail workers say that, to this point, their frequent complaints have gone unaddressed.

One longtime employee said she resigned last fall because an inmate who attempted to grab her genitals was never punished. She also reported hearing inmates “discussing how they were going to rape female officers.”

“Despite receiving numerous notifications of the sexually hostile work environment by Plaintiffs, no corrective actions were taken by the command staff,” the suit says. “Maddox and DKSO were aware and acquiesced to the hostile work environment.”

Maddox was the department’s chief deputy when Sheriff Jeffrey Mann stepped down in Nov. 2019 amid a battle over his law enforcement certification. Maddox took over as sheriff on an interim basis, becoming the first woman to fill the role in DeKalb County.

She later won a 2020 election that gave her a full four-year term.

One former employee in the new lawsuit said she worked for three different sheriffs — and that “the sexually hostile work environment was the worst under the current sheriff.”