AJC EXCLUSIVE: Women working in GA prisons endure harassment, groping — by male guards

Use of criminal probes to investigate complaints leads to most cases being dismissed, an AJC investigation finds
Spalding County Correctional Officer Deondra Smith, seen here inside her Thomaston, Ga., home, filed two complaints last year accusing her supervisor of sexual harassment. CHRIS JOYNER / CHRIS.JOYNER@AJC.COM

Spalding County Correctional Officer Deondra Smith, seen here inside her Thomaston, Ga., home, filed two complaints last year accusing her supervisor of sexual harassment. CHRIS JOYNER / CHRIS.JOYNER@AJC.COM

Lewd insults. Groping. Never-ending sexual propositions. That’s what women working in Georgia’s prison system say they endure every day.

Dealing with incarcerated criminals, the women knew going into the job that they could face men trying to intimidate them, or worse.

But dozens of women’s accounts in state records aren’t about prisoners. They’re about the men who work alongside them.

"When it comes to the prison, as a female, you're fighting off both," said an ex-Rogers State Prison guard, who complained last year that a supervising sergeant told her he wanted to see her in a bathing suit, then grabbed her from behind in a break room and squeezed her tightly. "You're fighting off male inmates and male officers."

If the state government at large has failed to protect female employees from harassment from co-workers, then the penal system is ground zero: The Department of Corrections has had at least 99 complaints of sexual harassment in a five-year period — which is four times more than any other state agency reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Even other very large departments have nothing close to that number.

A Department of Corrections case report says a sergeant at Rogers State Prison made “unwanted and unwelcomed physical contact” with one employee and is under investigation for an alleged sexual assault of another.

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And that’s just what gets reported. Women in Corrections also may be less likely to speak up about sexual harassment and less likely to be believed when they do, the AJC investigation found. While many may hesitate to report harassment on the job, Corrections employees often work in isolated rural corners of the state with few other job options.

“This is the golden job,” a former kitchen worker said. “People need their job, or they know what they have to deal with when they open their mouth.”

Women have another compelling reason to remain silent: They have to depend on their harassers to back them up in a hostile, often dangerous, environment. The ex-kitchen worker said a lieutenant once boasted to her about the size of his penis, saying, “Y’all don’t know what y’all are missing,” but she didn’t report him.

"An officer, sergeant, lieutenant – if you're in the situation where they have tried to make a pass at you or sexually assault you, those are the ones you have to depend on when it comes to the inmates," she said.

When women do come forward, they face the likelihood investigators will decide they have not been unlawfully harassed. From 2013 to April of this year, internal affairs found sexual harassment complaints substantiated in just one out of every four cases, the AJC’s analysis found.

THE GOVERNOR'S RACETop candidates pledge sexual harassment reform, following AJC investigation

OUR PREVIOUS COVERAGEShe said she'd been sexually harassed. Then she got fired for it.

Even after an officer was caught on video touching a woman’s buttocks, the complaint was deemed unsubstantiated

If allegations are confirmed, the victim still may be left to work alongside her harasser. In one case, a sergeant told a subordinate to stand up, turn around and "let me see your butt." He got a reprimand.

The department’s use of internal affairs investigations, rather than human resources, to get to the bottom of sexual harassment complaints may be exacerbating problems, experts say. That’s because criminal investigators tend to focus on determining whether criminal acts took place, rather than rooting out dysfunctional work environments.

The same investigators who look into women’s complaints also handle prisoner abuse, officer misconduct and workers compensation claims.

“Instead of cleaning up afterward, you really want to start creating environments that are respectful,” said Patricia Wise, an Ohio employment attorney who served on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s task force on workplace harassment. “The last thing you want is to have criminal investigators lurking in the shadows, waiting until someone has an issue.”

Victims who only want their harassers to back off — not to be carted away in handcuffs — could be discouraged from reporting. And the AJC found that criminal probes can move sluggishly, leaving those who come forward to languish.

The department defends its handling of cases and said it has protections in place for females working in prisons. All employees receive annual harassment training and a statement prohibiting harassment is posted on official bulletin boards, spokeswoman Joan Heath said.

“We train our staff on what they can and cannot do,” said Clay Nix, deputy director of Corrections’ Office of Professional Standards. “But we also have a very robust investigation division and we investigate each and every one of the allegations.”

To review how the department handled sexual harassment cases, the AJC in July requested complaint records. However, because internal affairs investigators examine complaints, the department invoked a law allowing it to withhold investigative files. Corrections Commissioner Gregory Dozier eventually agreed to release only case summaries, with significant redactions including victims’ names and ranks.

But the picture that emerges, even in the limited records made available, backs up former prison workers’ descriptions of combustible, hyper-masculine workplaces, where illicit behavior is so rampant it’s considered routine.

Culture of dominance

In the sexualized culture of the prison, the ex-food services worker said, some male officers make lewd comments in front of prisoners, sending a less-than-subtle message about how they, too, can treat female staffers. Prisoners would harass them by “gunning” — masturbating in front of them on purpose, she said.

“They see our higher people that we’re supposed to look up to doing us like that,” the woman said. “What do you think they’re going to do?”

Ex-employees also told the AJC that, much as one prisoner will take sexual possession over another, some male guards will home in on lower-ranking females — hounding them for dates, seeking sex, putting hands on them and retaliating if they don’t get their way.

"You're theirs, basically," said the former Rogers officer, still living near the Reidsville prison. "Everybody pretty much knows, well, this sergeant talks to this officer, and that captain talks to this officer, so don't mess with her."

The AJC does not identify victims of sexual harassment without their consent, so she is not being named.

The ex-guard said she was in a break room off the medical unit, microwaving her lunch, when a sergeant who had had his eye on her came up from behind, wrapped his arm around her waist and pressed his cheek against her face. At that point, her instincts took over. She planted an elbow into his chest and broke away. He laughed and left the room.

<p>Rogers State Prison offers some of the best-paying jobs in the Reidsville area, but some ex-employees say women who work there endure harassment by inmates and male co-workers alike.&nbsp;</p>

Credit: Johnny Edwards

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Credit: Johnny Edwards

Yet she hesitated to report him, waiting four months to file a written complaint detailing what happened. She lodged it only after another woman told her that the same sergeant, Terry Stokes, had done something even worse to her. The AJC couldn’t independently verify what she said the other woman told her, but the department confirmed that complaint is being viewed as a possible sexual assault.

A former Rogers State Prison guard filed this complaint against Sgt. Terry Stokes about two months before she was fired.

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Even with two complaints, several more months passed before an investigator contacted the woman about the break room incident, she said. By then, she had been fired for refusing to work a post — which she said was in the kitchen, unarmed and alone with dozens of inmates in an area of the prison where her radio signal was weak.

She feared a set-up, she said, both because of her complaint and because she had rebuffed sexual advances from another supervising sergeant.

Now she works at a discount supermarket, earning $8 per hour. Her experiences in the prison left her so traumatized, she said, that she keeps a shopping buggy wedged into her cashier’s station, because she still fears having someone sneak up behind her. And she can’t stand the sound of slamming doors.

More than a year after the women’s complaints were filed, and despite the internal investigation that found “unwanted and unwelcome physical contact” with the woman in the break room, Stokes’ case remains open and he has faced no disciplinary action.

Nix, of the Office of Professional Standards, said that while his office investigates complaints of sexual harassment, he doesn’t decide on discipline. Stokes is currently on military leave, and Nix said that delayed the case.

“We could not interview somebody, obviously, who was away. You definitely don’t want to do something like that on a telephone,” he said.

The AJC found Stokes at his home in Reidsville, not far from the prison. He said he’s preparing to deploy with the Army National Guard, and internal affairs has instructed him not to talk to anyone about his case. “It’s all over with, is all I can say,” Stokes said.

However, Nix told the AJC the department has asked the local district attorney’s office to revisit it.

A sign set up outside Georgia State Prison in Reidsville offers job opportunities. Turnover and staffing shortages are constant problems in the prison system. JOHNNY EDWARDS / JREDWARDS@AJC.COM

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‘I know where you live’

In jails that contract with the Department of Corrections to house prisoners, it’s easier to see how harassment investigations unfold. That’s because they’re handled by county governments, which are required by law to be more forthcoming with documents. But the end results of those investigations can be just as unsatisfying, as Deondra Smith, a guard at Spalding County Correctional Institution, learned earlier this year.

A 27-year-old single mom, she took the job two years ago to get a foothold in law enforcement. Within weeks of starting work, she said, Lt. Bennie Gray, her shift supervisor, began making odd comments.

“It just got worse and worse,” she told the AJC, agreeing to be identified.

Smith said her supervisor commented on her appearance and the tightness of her pants. He persistently asked her to go fishing with him off duty, despite her repeated refusals. Then Gray allegedly started texting her and calling her at home.

"He would say stuff like, 'I know where you live. I'm not scared to come over there,'" she said. "He would ask me 'are you cooking breakfast in the morning?'"

On her evaluation, Gray gave Smith a good rating but criticized her for being uncommunicative. That prompted her first complaint in May 2017.

“I didn’t care about the rating. I cared about the lie,” she said.

Smith said the prison warden called her into his office and talked to her for about 20 minutes, assuring her that Gray’s behavior would stop. It did — for a few weeks.

Out of frustration, Deondra Smith bought a digital recorder and started recording her interactions with a supervisor she alleged was sexually harassing her. County officials cleared him of any wrongdoing, but moved him to another shift. CHRIS JOYNER / CHRIS.JOYNER@AJC.COM

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When the comments began again, they were worse. Gray told her he was going to “knock the dust off that p****y,” she said. In another incident, she said, Gray put his hands on her in a faux attempt to brush lint from her uniform.

“He rubbed from the middle of my back all the way down to my butt,” she said.

Out of frustration, she bought a digital recorder and started recording their interactions. Armed with evidence, she filed another complaint in December. The human resources director, Wendy Law, still found no evidence of harassment.

Law said in a letter to Smith that she couldn’t make out what was being said on the tapes. “I could hear Lt. Gray’s voice and laughter,” Law wrote, “and you confirmed the laughter is yours.”

An AJC reporter listened to the recording. The audio is muffled and distant, but toward the end, a male voice says to Smith, “OK, sit your fine self down.”

Gray has been moved to another shift. Smith, who still works there, is not sure she wants to stay in law enforcement.

“I don’t know if I can trust it,” she said. “If I go somewhere else, is it going to be better? Is it going to be worse?”

The wrong standard

Though records provided by the Department of Corrections are sparse, an Atlanta employment attorney who reviewed several cases for the AJC found that, because of the criminal investigative approach, they’re weighted in favor of accused harassers.

Amanda Farahany said the summaries show that when there are no witnesses, and the man says he didn’t do it, investigators simply discount victim testimony as unverified.

"They are not making judgments of credibility. They are looking for confirmation," Farahany said. "So why would anyone ever admit to anything?"

Last year, the department investigated a case at Hays State Prison in northwest Georgia where a female officer accused a sergeant of commenting on her physical appearance, blowing kisses to her, inappropriately touching her and discussing his sex life with her.

The sergeant wound up resigning when faced with a polygraph exam. But the summaries show the department labeled most of the woman’s accusations as “not sustained” because he had denied or minimized them.

For example, the woman said he commented on the size of her buttocks. “There were no witnesses to the comment and (the sergeant) made no admission to the fact,” according to the departmental summary.

Nix said there are aspects of his office’s investigations, like attempts to find corroborating witnesses or other victims of harassment, that are not included in the released summaries. But he said the department is in a bind when it comes to judging a he said/she said case.

"All you can do is interview them and try to get the bottom of it," he said. "We've got to act with what we can prove and not prove. It's not that we don't believe the victim."

Farahany said that approach may be OK for investigating, for instance, the smuggling of contraband into a prison, but it’s not the generally accepted way to look at workplace harassment. Such claims should be judged by a civil court standard, she said, not criminal.

“The civil standard is a preponderance of the evidence — it’s more likely true than not true,” Farahany said.

The department’s inclination to initially investigate sexual harassment as a crime can also come at a cost to victims. Last November, a female corrections officer at Macon State Prison filed a complaint that a male co-worker inappropriately touched her buttocks.

Within days, investigators discovered video showing the male officer had, indeed, touched her backside as she claimed. But rather than treat it as a human resources issue, investigators contacted the local district attorney who said he would look at prosecution.

Nearly a year later, the case is still pending, and the officer remains employed. Sexual harassment wasn’t substantiated, the department said. Nix pointed to the victim.

“She did not want to cooperate with any sort of prosecution in the matter,” he said. “We encouraged her to go forward with the matter as far as criminally, but she just did not want to cooperate.”

Credit: AJC

A local employment attorney told us five myths about sexual harassment.