Colorado's prisons received a passing grade earlier this year from a U.S. Department of Justice consultant hired to conduct a study of sexual harassment in the workplace. The results could have been a point of pride for the state's corrections system, which is badly is need of some positive press.
Instead, two former prison guards charge that the study isn't worth the paper it's written on because female prison employees were afraid to come forward--they'd been burned in the past for speaking out. And indeed, corrections officials have confirmed that, approximately one month before the Justice study was conducted, employees at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway took copies of confidential interviews with guards--in which harassment was alleged--and leaked them to their accused harassers and other prison employees.
The Department of Corrections' inspector general, Wallis Parmenter, acknowledges that the leaks may have skewed the nationally funded study, adding that she's "heard through the grapevine" that some employees were ostracized for comments made in the course of the interviews.
"If people are ostracized for coming forward once," Parmenter says, "logically they wouldn't want to come forward a second time."
Only the two former guards, Mary Henderson and Sandra Trujillo Haberman, appear willing to continue speaking out.
Henderson took a job with the prison system in 1990 after serving as an Otero County deputy sheriff. She worked at the Arrowhead prison in Canon City for a year before family considerations brought her to Arkansas Valley, in southeastern Colorado. She'd loved working in Canon City, she says, but that was not the case at Arkansas Valley, where, according to Henderson, a male officer greeted her on her first day with the words, "With an ass like that, you'll go far in DOC."
"I should have realized then," she says, "that it would just get worse." She says her attempts to fend off advances only caused more problems. Once, she says, a co-worker told her that her failure to date him would cost her dearly. "He said, `When you need help, it's not going to be there.'"
On February 28, 1992, Henderson needed help desperately. Early that morning, inmate William Sojka pushed his way into her office and, armed with a shard of glass, took her hostage. He held Henderson captive for five and a half hours, during which he cut her repeatedly and tried to electrocute her.
Eldred "Marty" Martin, Henderson's partner that day, claims his calls to a supervisor for backup were initially ignored. "I got on the phone and said, `The bastard's got Mary!'" Martin says. "He [the supervisor] hung up on me. I called back and said, `I got a hostage situation!' He hung up on me again." Martin says he was hung up on a third time before he finally was able to rouse help.
Henderson claims that the officer on the other end of that phone was the same man who warned her that no one would be there to help when she needed it. But, she says, when she informed District Attorney Gary Stork of the harassment and of the slowed efforts to come to her aid, he warned her against bringing that up during Sojka's trial. "The DA said [Sojka] would use it against me and he would walk," she says. (Sojka was later convicted of kidnapping, assault and attempted murder in his assault against Henderson.) Stork, however, denies having such a conversation with Henderson. "She never made any allegations whatsoever of sexual harassment," he says. "Absolutely not." Nor, he points out, did Henderson mention sexual harassment in her 1993 lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, in which she asks for damages due to allegedly negligent and reckless behavior by prison officials. (The suit was dismissed last January; it is now being appealed.)
Henderson quit her prison job in February 1993, mostly out of disgust with the system, she says, and with the department's apparent unwillingness to offer her a suitable position with little inmate contact. But after her departure, she became a lightning rod for other disaffected female guards. One of those seeking her help and advice was Sandy Haberman, who joined the DOC in February 1991 and moved to Arkansas Valley the following year. Haberman's first assignment was on the graveyard shift, where she was one of few women and, she claims, the frequent target of lewd and denigrating comments. One officer reportedly told Haberman that women are nothing more than "sperm dumps" and "ten-minute lays." She moved to the day shift a year later and then fell apart, a situation she ascribes to "post-traumatic stress."
Haberman, according to medical documents, awoke one morning last fall unable to remember how to dress herself. She spent days on the sofa, crying. Her doctor prescribed anti-depressants and diagnosed the problem as job-related stress. Haberman accepted a short-term disability leave.
In December Haberman filed an internal complaint about alleged harassment with the DOC's Office of the Inspector General. At Henderson's request, investigators conducted interviews away from the prison--Henderson says she feared that the men and women would be retaliated against if it was known they'd talked.
Investigators spoke to at least a dozen officers and, per policy, the results of the investigation were turned over to Arkansas Valley warden Bill Price. Only personnel with "a need to know" and employees slated for discipline are entitled to that information, says DOC official Parmenter, but someone at the prison released it.
Haberman says she heard that a guard major made copies of the interviews and passed them along to the entire day shift, an allegation that is categorically denied by Price and the major. Price, in fact, insists that to his knowledge there were no leaks. Other corrections officials, while acknowledging that there were leaks, say they don't know who was responsible. "At the time," says DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough, "nothing in the regulations addressed secondary distribution, and there was no investigation of it." That will soon be corrected--Parmenter says the department is now in the process of drafting just such a rule.
During the time the "confidential" interviews were making the rounds at Arkansas Valley, the DOC received a grant from the Justice Department to conduct a study of sexual and racial harassment. Employees were interviewed in February. And though employees at some of the state's prisons did complain of sexist jokes, employees at Arkansas Valley reported no such thing. "Employees do not feel that racial or sexual harassment is a problem at Arkansas Valley," consultant Janet Richmond wrote in her report. She also noted that one employee stated "she would not report sexual harassment, if it did occur, out of fear of retaliation."
Richmond's finding of no harassment at Arkansas Valley came out in mid-March. But two weeks later the DOC's official finding concerning Haberman's claims was released: The department found that at least two men did make remarks that "a reasonable person would have found offensive." Investigators also concluded that "the environment was a hostile work place." Haberman's alleged harassers were required to attend a training class.
Price says he can only speculate as to why Haberman and Henderson would come forward to complain now. "Maybe they have a hidden agenda," he says. "Since she was taken hostage, [Henderson] has become a professional victim. In her eyes, nothing we would do would be correct." As for Haberman, he says, "perhaps she's thinking the state has deep pockets."
Haberman has filed an intent to sue the DOC, but she says she's after justice, not money. She is out of a job--her short-term disability leave ended in April--and says she is still unable to work. She blames her depression and the Department of Corrections for the resulting breakup of her marriage and the December suicide of her fourteen-year-old son.
"They destroyed my mind and my family," Haberman says of her alleged harassers, "and all they have to do is take an eight-hour class.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.