Caught Off Guard

Sex harassment in the state prison system is no joke. So why is this man laughing?

From the look of things, everybody had a grand time at the farewell party held last March at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility for departing deputy warden Joe Paolino. Cake and M&Ms were in abundance, and the special tribute to Paolino, a veteran Colorado Department of Corrections official, prompted a general outbreak of snickers, giggles and guffaws.

The event, attended by more than thirty employees of the medium-security prison outside Ordway and captured on videotape, featured several stabs at big-house humor that had folks roaring in their seats. The party kicked off with the reading of a fake letter accusing the deputy warden of harassing a former female employee, which prompted Paolino to jeer at the woman's lack of sexual appeal. Then things really picked up as the guest of honor unwrapped the gag gifts: enormous plastic balls ("Is this because I have no balls, or what?" asked Paolino); a toy pistol with the barrel pointing at the shooter; and an even tinier gun that well-wishers figured ol' Joe was "man enough to handle."

And don't forget the pantyhose--the pantyhose with a sheath for a male member sewn into the crotch. Wasn't that a stitch? Ever the good sport, Paolino displayed the garment for all to see and compared its slender waistband to his own husky build. "I would wear them, but they're too small," he deadpanned.

Ten months later, state prison officials are no longer in a partying mood; their pantyhose are in a knot over a recent jury verdict in federal court awarding former DOC security guard Sandra Haberman $362,500 in damages for the sexual harassment she endured while working the graveyard shift at Arkansas Valley in 1992 and 1993. Haberman's case--the first to go to trial in what promises to be a series of harassment-related lawsuits against the DOC--raises allegations not only of hostile and dangerous working conditions for women at the prison, but of threats, retaliation and wildly improper behavior by administrators, including Paolino, who supervised some of the mandatory harassment-prevention sessions at Arkansas Valley.

DOC officials and corrections officers involved in the suit have consistently denied any improper conduct in the case. "When the allegations were made, we conducted a prompt and thorough investigation," says department spokeswoman Liz McDonough.

But jurors had little difficulty believing Haberman's witnesses and other evidence presented by her attorneys, Macon Cowles and Mary Kane. The jury was out only two hours before it decided on the massive award for "emotional distress." The total cost could climb past the half-million mark after Judge William Downes calculates what Haberman should be awarded for back pay and attorneys' fees.

One piece of evidence the jury didn't see was the videotape of Paolino's send-off party; state attorneys were successful in suppressing the tape, arguing that the party had no relevance to Haberman's situation three years earlier. Of course, Haberman's lawyers disagree.

"That video is very powerful evidence of how pervasive sexual harassment was at the facility," says Cowles. "It persuades me that they know nothing of sexual harassment and what it does to women."

The third generation of her family to work in the state corrections system, Haberman claimed that she'd confronted hostility from male employees starting on her first night of work, including undesirable work assignments, degrading comments and requests for sexual favors (see sidebar, page 10). She soon came to understand that if she complained, other officers might refuse to provide backup if she had to deal with an inmate disturbance. The threat seemed particularly ominous in light of Arkansas Valley's recent history; just months earlier, Mary Henderson, a housing supervisor on the graveyard shift, had been taken hostage by inmate William Sojka, who'd beaten her, slashed her with a broken mirror and attempted to electrocute her over a period of five hours before she was rescued.

Henderson had originally joined in Haberman's suit, charging that she also was harassed and that male colleagues had been slow to respond to her requests for assistance at the outset of the hostage incident. But Henderson's case was ultimately dismissed on the grounds that it hadn't been filed in time; the dismissal of a previous suit she'd filed, seeking damages for the hostage ordeal itself, was recently upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled 4-3 that prison officials couldn't be held liable for the episode.

Curiously, Henderson herself was the target of a Denver grand jury proceeding last year, which resulted in no charges. "The grand jury was investigating the DOC theory that, instead of Mary being taken hostage, it was really a lover's assignation--that she wanted to be taken behind closed doors with this inmate," Cowles says. "It's so strange you can hardly believe it. It was a totally bullshit case that was set up to harass Mary." (The state attorney who presided over the grand jury did not respond to requests for comment.)

For her part, Haberman took her complaints to DOC internal investigators, who concluded that, as Cowles puts it, "Arkansas Valley was not a very nice place to work" but declined to reach a specific finding of sexual harassment. Her efforts drew more threats and rebuffs from prison staff, she claims, including an official who allegedly told her, "I don't know what you think this will get you."

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