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A Real Harass Man

Joe Paolino played a major role in cases that have cost the state more than a million dollars.

"He seemed to be everywhere," says Donna Fails. "I think of him as the wolf in 'Little Red Riding Hood.'"

Fails, a relatively new DOC employee who'd previously worked in corrections in Louisiana, says she was unaware of the new warden's reputation when she went to see him about a male officer's unwanted attentions. Paolino's behavior during the meeting, she says, was "very unprofessional and humiliating."

"He asked me if I was familiar with the inmate code of silence," she says. "He said, 'Just like the inmates don't tell on each other, we don't tell on each other.' He gave me a direct order to keep quiet."

After the meeting, Fails says, she never complained about the warden, because she was afraid of losing her job, but she had "no doubt whatsoever" about the way he ogled her or his suggestive invitations to have coffee. "I was very uncomfortable, and he knew that," she says. "It was like a game to him. He knew I was afraid, and he had me on the run."

On the stand, Paolino admitted that he may have made comments about split tails and swinging dicks, but he denied that he set out to harass anyone. "I believe I have a sense of humor, but the effort to portray me as some sort of sexual pervert who dominates conversations with these jokes is completely unfounded," he declared in one affidavit in the case. He disciplined employees who harassed others, he insisted, and "referred to individuals as 'pinheads' when they refuse[d] to make the paradigm shift which involves trying to understand others and being sensitive to others."

But behind the talk of paradigm shifts, Fails says, was the prison system's inviolable code of silence. The official rationale for her 1998 dismissal had to do with her efforts to report another guard for abusing an inmate and possibly smuggling contraband; while she was fired for a supposedly false report, a male officer who made a similar report wasn't disciplined. (The guard she'd complained about was later fired after being caught with a crack pipe.)

Fear of retaliation kept even high-ranking women from challenging Paolino, according to Susan Jones, an associate warden who testified in the Fails case. Jones claimed to have witnessed numerous inappropriate comments and gestures from the warden, including a hand signal so popular among male staffers that it became known as the "meat gazer" sign. But she said she was afraid to report the incidents -- even though she'd conducted numerous harassment training classes in the DOC since 1990. When she did approach a regional director about Paolino, she added, she received no response.

"It was just tolerated activity," says Fails attorney Darrell Damschen. "The underlying attitude in the Department of Corrections isn't what's on paper." A 1997 "climate survey" of DOC employees, he notes, indicated that more than half of the respondents didn't believe they could file a grievance about another employee without fear of retaliation.

Another key witness in the case was Kelli Sluder, a corrections standards coordinator who was the subject of many of Paolino's most graphic (and coprophagic) remarks. Although the defense attempted to depict Sluder as a willing participant in the warden's off-color banter, it was her complaints about Paolino's incessant come-ons that finally led to a DOC investigation and his demotion last fall.

In a fourteen-page letter to Paolino, correctional programs director Dennis Kleinsasser outlined various allegations against the warden and concluded that he was responsible for "creating and personally reinforcing an organizational culture at CCF that was conducive to crude verbal, physical, or symbolic sexual behaviors." The fact that such behavior had occurred despite Paolino's prior training in harassment issues and his participation in the Haberman case made the offense an act of "willful misconduct."

Paolino is now an associate warden at the Territorial Correctional Facility, but his legal odyssey is far from over; his name looms large in at least two more harassment lawsuits against the department. One was filed by Kelli Sluder, who was transferred to another prison after her complaint against Paolino and found conditions there so "unpleasant" that she soon took a leave of absence that's extended to this day. The other plaintiff is Louella Watkins, who worked with Paolino at Arkansas Valley and claims to have suffered retaliation as a result of her complaints about him and her role in supporting race- and sex-discrimination complaints made by other employees.

That Paolino is still employed by the DOC amazes Donna Fails, who says the type of harassment she encountered at Centennial would never have been tolerated in the Louisiana prison system. "I don't know why they don't address these situations," she says. "There's a lot of it. Paolino is just one of the most blatant, daredevil types. My message to all DOC employees is to stand up for your rights like a human being."

Publicly, Joe Paolino isn't offering any messages right now, even of the hand-signal variety. But there's a moment on the video of his 1996 going-away party that takes on deeper significance with each costly lawsuit. Among the gag gifts for the new warden: a toy pistol with the barrel pointing at the shooter.

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