Michael C. Hill is missing one testicle.
Regrettably, this fact is now common knowledge among many guards and prisoners within the Colorado Department of Corrections. According to Hill, a 48-year-old former correctional officer, "very intimate details about my genitalia" were divulged to other prison staffers and to loose-tongued female inmates by a sergeant with whom he'd had a brief sexual relationship.
The anatomical gossip, Hill says, was part of a harassment campaign that humiliated him, jeopardized his safety and ultimately cost him his job at the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility. He's since filed a federal lawsuit against the DOC, claiming that his supervisors tolerated female-on-male harassment in the women's prison and discriminated against him when he took a stress leave as a result of the harassment.
"Caught Off Guard,"
February 6, 1997
Sex harassment in the state prison system is no joke. So why is this man laughing?
"If I had an affair with a female officer who was missing a breast and started telling male inmates about that, I'd be down the road," Hill says. "We got an officer who just got fired a few weeks ago for patting a female officer on the leg. Well, you can't have a double standard."
Hill's alleged harasser, Debra Perry, denies any wrongdoing. She describes Hill as a "conniver" who has fabricated accusations in an attempt to obtain a legal settlement. "He's a liar," Perry says. "If anybody was discriminated against, it was me. I can't see our tax dollars going to pay this idiot. It makes me very angry."
Hill and Perry both left their jobs at the DOC two years ago after taking medical leaves. Although their versions of what happened are wildly different, both say that the DOC mishandled the investigation of their complaints. In the predominantly male world of corrections, cases of alleged harassment of men by female staffers are rare but increasing; recently, a New Jersey court upheld a $3.75 million judgment awarded to a male prison guard who claimed to have been harassed by a female co-worker for years. And Hill's case presents a particularly disturbing account of the hazards of office romance when the office happens to be a prison.
A Vietnam veteran, rodeo buff and former sheriff's deputy, Hill began working at the women's prison outside Cañon City in 1993. Twice divorced, he says he began seeing Perry socially in the spring of 1996; the two worked the same shift, and Perry gave him a ride to work one day when his truck had a flat tire. "A couple of days later, she called me up," he recalls, "and said, 'Hey, Mike, during your bull-riding career, did you ever learn how to give good backrubs?'"
Backrubs soon led to a more intimate relationship, Hill says. But he began to have second thoughts about the affair after Perry told him about her stormy relationships with previous boyfriends. She also made "repeated references" to the Demi Moore movie Disclosure, he says, in which a spurned female executive terrorizes a male coworker. "Every time I tried to break it off, she said she was coming over anyway," he says.
One day in April, Hill says, Perry called him repeatedly at his post in a control tower demanding to meet him at his home after work. When he stopped answering the phone, she used the prison intercom system to swear at him and threaten him. Seeking to avoid a confrontation, Hill asked other staffers to accompany him to his truck when his shift ended. When Perry showed up at his door that evening carrying a book and a birthday card for him, he called the Cañon City police.
"She's kicking the door, and I won't let her in," Hill recalls. "The cops came and hauled her off." Perry returned in the middle of the night, he adds, prompting another call to the police, but she was gone by the time the officers arrived.
Perry denies any misbehavior. In fact, she says her relationship with Hill was strictly social. "I never had sex with the man," she says. "At the time, I had a steady boyfriend."
Hill had asked her to return the book-study materials for corrections officers, she says -- and then "set her up" for the police by not answering the door. She left peacefully, she insists, and didn't return that night -- though DOC records indicate that she called her supervisor at 2:10 a.m. to give her version of events.
Perry wasn't arrested, and no charges were filed in the incident. But Hill's complaints about the alleged harassment prompted an inquiry by DOC officials into what had occurred at the workplace. One supervisor concluded that Perry had engaged in "name-calling, verbally abusive language and misuse of facility communication systems."
Hill wasn't satisfied with a simple apology from Perry. He argues that she had a habit of stalking and harassing ex-boyfriends; Cañon City police records indicate that Perry was questioned concerning complaints by two other men, and she was arrested for violating a restraining order involving her boyfriend's children from a previous marriage. (The case was later dismissed.) "I asked them to fire her or transfer her, anything to get her out of my face," Hill says.
Perry counters that her problems in her personal life, which she attributes in part to a head injury she suffered in an auto accident in 1995, had nothing to do with her performance at work. "I can't say all my relationships ended well, but I never had one with Mike Hill," she says. "If you knew me, you'd know that I'm not capable of doing the things he's been saying."
DOC officials have maintained that they handled Hill's complaint appropriately by assigning him to another shift and ordering Perry to cease harassing him. They also claim that Perry had no "chain-of-command authority" over Hill. (Hill disputes this: If he'd failed to follow a sergeant's order, he says, he'd be guilty of insubordination.) Yet an early memo on the case, from Major Stephen Schuh to prison superintendent Mike Williams, recommended transferring Perry to another prison. "DOC could be defenseless if no action to separate the staff by facilities occurs," Schuh wrote.
The transfer never occurred. Instead, in three weeks, Hill and Perry were back on the same shift. Hill says the harassment continued to escalate over the following ten months, at times putting him in physical danger. Corrections officers depend heavily upon their colleagues in various daily situations, and Hill claims that Perry would abruptly close electronically operated doors on him, separating him from others -- even bruising his shoulder one time.
"She would throw my keys out on the floor, and I'd have to bend down to pick them up," he says. "She would give me a radio with dead batteries. When I would call in to get some back-up, she'd let me sit for fifteen minutes. She was really causing me a lot of problems."
For her part, Perry filed complaints that Hill was harassing her by not providing proper perimeter patrol and other duties. Hill says he was discouraged from filing a formal grievance for months by his supervisor, who kept promising to take care of the situation. The last straw, he says, came when other female staff and then inmates began taunting him about having one testicle.
"One day I passed a group of about twenty inmates," Hill says, "and one of them said, 'Hey, One Nut!' I turned around and looked, but what are you going to do? Another day I'm in the control center and a female officer says to me, 'So I hear you only got one nut.' What business is it of hers?"
Hill is convinced that Perry was the source of the information about his missing testicle, which he'd lost in an accidental self-inflicted shooting during his brief career as a sheriff's deputy. That inmates knew about it was especially alarming, he says, because of the vulnerability of male guards to sexual assault claims by female prisoners: "All any inmate had to do was to file a sexual misconduct charge against me and tell [investigators] that I had only one testicle, then who's going to believe me?"
Perry denies telling anyone about Hill's condition or even being aware of it before he launched his accusations against her. "There isn't one inmate who can say I ever said anything about Mike Hill," she says. "I knew nothing about it. He bragged to other people about it, that he was this macho cop and his parts had been blown off by somebody. If he wanted it kept so secret, I don't know why he was doing that."
But two female staffers interviewed by the DOC's investigator say that Perry told them about Hill's missing testicle, and Hill is adamant that he never talked about his injury. "That is so private," he says. "I never told nobody. Would you?"
Hill took several days off from work when he learned that his secret had become a joke among prisoners. On the day that he was supposed to return, he says, he "just started bawling" on the way to work and drove to his doctor's office instead. Over the next few months he was diagnosed with "situational anxiety, adjustment disorder with irritability, anxiety and depression."
Although a battery of psychologists and workers' comp doctors recommended that he have no further contact with inmates, the Colorado Compensation Insurance Authority denied his disability claim. When his sick leave was exhausted, the DOC fired him because he refused to return to his old post, insisting on a transfer to a position that would accommodate his "mental disability."
One reason the DOC took the position that Hill didn't need a transfer was that Debra Perry no longer worked for the agency. Perry left a few weeks before Hill took his leave; she says she took a voluntary disability retirement as a result of the long-term effects of her car accident. Hill has a letter from superintendent Williams assuring him that if she ever attempted to return to DOC employment, "she would immediately face disciplinary action up to and including termination for her actions" in the harassment case.
Hill says the department never treated his complaints with the seriousness they deserved. "I just don't think they care," he says. "They don't consider men as being capable of being sexually harassed in the workplace by a woman."
The double standard extends to prisoners, too, he insists. Although male officers are severely disciplined for any physical contact with female prisoners -- they're not even allowed to conduct pat-down searches -- Hill argues that the situation doesn't work in reverse. He says a female inmate once squeezed his behind; far from being disciplined, the inmate was transferred to a minimum-security prison and was never charged. "If a male inmate walked up to a female staff member and squeezed the cheek of her ass, what do you think would happen?" Hill asks. "His feet wouldn't even touch the ground between where that happened and lockup."
Perry says Hill's account of her relentless pursuit of him is sheer fantasy. "I'm not as pretty as I used to be," she says. "But even today, how many men do I have to threaten to have sex? Give me a break. You don't have to force somebody. I'm sorry, I was never that desperate. Especially for Mike Hill."
The ball is now in federal court. Hill says he hopes that the case sends a strong message to prison administrators that harassment cuts both ways. "Men don't report this kind of stuff," he says. "But I haven't talked to one staff member who wanted me to let this drop."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.