Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran is dismissive of claims that for years, he has fostered a hostile work environment where female correctional officers are routinely subjected to sexual harassment by male inmates. Cochran spoke to news media this week after the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Title VII lawsuit on behalf of 12 female Mobile County Sheriff’s Office (MSCO) employees who initially filed charges of sex discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Cochran said the complaints are years old, and DOJ made no attempts to resolve the issues administratively before filing the lawsuit. He intends to fight the charges in court.
“It all started about eight years ago with some lawyer out of South Florida who said he was representing some employees and he wanted a payment,” Cochran said Monday. “We said we don’t think we’ve done anything wrong, and we didn’t hear anything else. Then we found out an EEOC complaint had been filed and as part of their investigation, we gave them all the appropriate paperwork and records. The DOJ got involved in October 2016 and we didn’t hear much from them until about two months ago, when we got a demand letter to settle.”
According to the lawsuit, Mobile County Metro Jail is staffed by 73 percent female correctional officers who are “routinely subjected to various forms of unwelcome, severe sexual harassment by male inmates.” The complaint provides graphic examples of physical and verbal harassment, noting male inmates “frequently expose their genitals, masturbate and direct sexual slurs, sexual propositions, threats of sexual violence and sexually degrading comments towards female employees.”
Exhibitionist masturbation is known as “gunning” by corrections officers, and MCSO allegedly held training on the topic in 2016. But according to the complaint, Security Capt. Sadie Stallworth’s training session focused on protecting the inmates rather than the officers. The complaint does not detail specific charges against Cochran, other than his supervisory role.
The complaint alleges despite the employees’ numerous reports to MCSO supervisors objecting to the harassment, MCSO did not take the complaints seriously and failed to take prompt and effective action to remedy the harassing conduct.
The complaint names 12 specific female employees and details their experience with harassment. The employees allegedly complained about the environment “for years,” but dismissive comments from supervisors included “deal with it,” “put on your big girl pants,” “turn your head, don’t look,” and suggestions to tone down their physical appearance.
Cochran said in the years since, MCSO has responded in several ways that are not reflected in the complaint.
“We take disciplinary action against the inmates, either a suspension of privileges for 30 days or put them in administrative segregation for 30 days,” he said. “We’ve tried other things, like putting film on the windows, but that created security issues. The county bought $700,000 worth of replacement locks last year. Before, several inmates would pick the locks and break out of their cells and go do those indecent acts. The county also spent well over $1 million on a new camera system so we could document it.”
Cochran also disputes charges supervisors failed to take action on employee complaints, noting “the majority of supervisors at all levels” of MCSO are female, including the two highest-ranking civil services employees and a majority of lieutenants.
“We find that many correctional officers don’t want to follow through with a disciplinary action or criminal complaint,” he said. “There has to be a victim and a witness and sometimes they are unwilling to sign a warrant. The truth is it’s a challenging time to work in a jail but we’ve made every reasonable effort we know of to help prevent that type of behavior.”
Cochran emphasized that no female employee has ever been physically or sexually assaulted in the jail.
“At the end of the day, a jail is a harsh place to work,” he said. “There are hardened criminals, the mentally ill and sexual deviants. We know some of this stuff has gone on but we sort of dispute what some employees are saying. We conferred with our attorneys and we don’t feel like we’re at fault.”
Title VII is a federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. MCSO continues to work with DOJ to resolve a decade-old complaint regarding health care and mental health care at Mobile Metro Jail, but Cochran said the two issues are unrelated.
“We’ve worked with them on several things and some things had a real positive outcome,” Cochran said, pointing to a new inmate classification system recommended by the federal government. “We were real close to resolving [the previous complaint] two years ago but they just sort of switched to a different topic.”
In a news release last week, DOJ confirmed it was seeking a monetary settlement in the latest case.
“Nobody deserves to be sexually harassed while on the job,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela S. Karlan of the Civil Rights Division. “The behavior to which these female employees were subjected is appalling, and the county’s failure to take action to protect its employees from such conduct is inexcusable.”
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