In November 2015, two female deputies with the Denver Sheriff's Department filed a lawsuit alleging that Denver County Jail is a house of horrors for female guards.
The complaint suggested that profane verbal abuse, sexual harassment and intentional masturbation are common occurrences at the facility and argued that female deputies are "discouraged from reporting the sexual abuse and harassment by prisoners...because the Department does not take reasonable measures against the abuse even when it is reported."
Months later, this case is still pending — and it's been followed by another one. There are ten plaintiffs in the most recent lawsuit, and Wilbur Smith, one of the attorneys handling the matter (along with Brian Moore), says the situation at DCJ definitely hasn't improved.
"Inmates sexually harass the deputies, and the sheriff's department, like all sheriff's departments, has a duty to mitigate it," Smith says. "Now, we all know that with an inmate population, you can't stop it completely. But the lawsuit turns on their not taking any adequate measures to even reduce it."
Six of the plaintiffs — Denita Hartzog, Rebecca Esquibel, Giovanna Kemp, Lisa Maes, Sadie Montano and Staci Wright — are still employed by the sheriff's department, with Hartzog, Kemp and Montano all having served for more than twenty years. Four others — Peggy Major, Courtney Mickelson, Terri Eddy and Paula Purdy — "have been constructively discharged as a result of the hostile work environment," the suit maintains.
However, all ten filed one or more discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a timely manner, with the EEOC subsequently sending them a notice of right to sue for sexual harassment that "includes, but is not limited to, male inmates demeaning plaintiffs with sex-based degrading language and purposefully exposing themselves to and masturbating in front of plaintiffs."
The complaint argues that "this sexual harassment is fostered by the failure of defendant to take reasonable steps to prevent and stop it. In addition, defendant has a pattern and practice of discriminating against plaintiffs and other female deputies with respect to job assignments and other terms and conditions of employment."
The language allegedly used against the female deputies is definitely shocking. Examples from the suit include “I’m going to ass-rape you with no lube,” "I will suck your clit," “Die, woman,” “Shake that ass,” “Your Dad raped you when you were young, that’s why you are such a bitch," "I think she needs some dick" and much, much more.
And that's not to mention "repeated nonverbal sexual harassment" that includes male inmates "exposing their genitalia to female deputies; simulating masturbation while watching female deputies; and simulating other sexual acts while watching female deputies." Additionally, plaintiff Mickelson was groped by an inmate.
Making the situation worse, according to the lawsuit, is the lack of an effective system by which female deputies can report sexual harassment, as well as alleged discouragement by the department in regard to reporting sexual harassment at all, since such incidents are "part of the job" and the female deputies "should be used to it."
"That's been the response over the years: 'Grow a thick skin, be tough, you're not tough if you complain about it,'" Smith says. "And my clients would acknowledge that you need to be tough to be a corrections officer, and they are.
"But that's not the point. The point is, the department also has to have your back and take reasonable measures when they insult you in a way that demeans your gender. And our complaint alleges that this is a continuing action, and even today, reasonable measures haven't been implemented."
Indeed, Smith says, "We've seen no change in the sexual-harassment situation" since the filing of the previous lawsuit last year — one that's separate from the one he's overseeing, though they could be consolidated in the future. "I've been on this case for more than a year, and we've been unable to find any specific procedure for sexual harassment by an inmate of a female deputy."
Smith would like to see "a more efficient reporting system when these sexual slurs and other behaviors occur, and a more meaningful policy of how to respond and keep this to a minimum when it does occur.
"These aren't rookies who just came on the job and couldn't take it," he continues. "They're experienced deputies, and they need to know the department has their back, that they have their support, and that the department doesn't tolerate this."
Look below to read the lawsuit.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.