Denver Pays $1.55M for Turning Jail Into House of Horrors for Female Deputies

An exterior look at Denver County Jail.
An exterior look at Denver County Jail.
Last night, Denver City Council authorized a $1.55 million payout to settle a consolidated lawsuit filed on behalf of fifteen female Denver Sheriff Department deputies over working conditions at Denver County Jail. That's certainly a substantial amount — but the details about what these women experienced on the job are likely to leave many readers wondering why they didn't receive more.

Even the DSD admits that it fell short. "There will always be areas we can improve upon as a department," notes spokesperson Daria Serna, corresponding via email, "as evidenced by our agreement to provide more training to employees on inmate sexual harassment as part of the settlement."

She adds: "The Denver Sheriff Department recognizes that being responsible for the care and custody of inmates on a daily basis is a very challenging role for our deputy sheriffs. We constantly strive to provide our staff with the support, tools, resources and training they need to fulfill that role, and to listen to their concerns."

The current complaint is based on separate suits we initially explored in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Both are accessible below, and they argue that the goals outlined by Serna haven't always been achieved. Be warned that the language from the documents may offend some readers.

The plaintiffs for the first suit were Deputy DaShawn Walker, then supervising and guarding prisoners at the jail, and Deputy Samone Walker, who handled the same tasks until January 2015, when she was "injured subduing a combative prisoner," requiring her to be placed on modified duty while she healed, the document maintains.

For the most part, these deputies were assigned to watch over female inmates, who made up approximately 22 percent of the jail's population at the time, with the primary female pod, Building 21, providing a very particular series of challenges, as outlined in this lawsuit excerpt:
Building overcrowded, inadequately staffed and is unreasonably hazardous to deputies and prisoners alike. Female prisoners with behavioral issues, violence issues and mental health issues are mixed in with the general population. Violent prisoners are mixed with non-violent prisoners. The behaviorally defiant are mixed with the behaviorally compliant. These conditions increase the hardships upon female deputies who must protect both themselves and the prisoners under their charge.
The complaint adds that the female deputies were also frequently required to take part in what's termed "cross-gender supervision," resulting in a wide array of sexual harassment from male inmates. According to the lawsuit, "female deputies have been, and continue to be, called 'cunts, whores, bitches, sluts' and other sexually derogatory obscenities." In addition, the suit continues, "prisoners openly and persistently talk about performing sex acts on female deputies and talk about sexually assaulting female deputies. Prisoners make demeaning comments about female deputies' bodies. Prisoners continue to harass female deputies with obscene and derogatory sounds, calls and gestures."

Sexual harassment is particularly common during pat-downs, the suit argues — and inmates also "intentionally masturbate in front of female deputies and intentionally expose their genitals to female deputies." But the complaint asserts that both women were actively discouraged from reporting about such incidents and deemed punishment for the acts to be ineffectual.

Inside Denver County Jail. - DENVERGOV.ORG
Inside Denver County Jail.
A similar tone sounds throughout the second lawsuit, which arrived just shy of a year later. Six of its plaintiffs — Denita Hartzog, Rebecca Esquibel, Giovanna Kemp, Lisa Maes, Sadie Montano and Staci Wright — were still employed by the sheriff's department during that period, with Hartzog, Kemp and Montano all having served for more than twenty years. Four others — Peggy Major, Courtney Mickelson, Terri Eddy and Paula Purdy — were "constructively discharged as a result of the hostile work environment," the document allows. (Theresa Denbow, Cesqua Rasmussen and Rhonda Casados joined the combined complaints at a later date.)

Suit number two argues that sexual harassment at the jail "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." Furthermore, plaintiff Mickelson was groped by an inmate.

Making the situation worse, according to the lawsuit, was the lack of an effective system by which female deputies could 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,'" Wilbur Smith, an attorney representing the second group of plaintiffs, told us in 2016. "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 said there had been "no change in the sexual-harassment situation" since the filing of the initial lawsuit in 2015. But Serna asserts that things have changed more recently.

"As the plaintiffs acknowledged in the settlement agreement, the department took measures two years ago to ensure inmates are informed that sexually harassing staff members is prohibited conduct that carries potentially serious consequences, and to staff the female inmate housing unit at the County Jail with male deputies to the extent practicable under the law," she states. "We’ve also revised the department’s personnel policies to ensure all staff members understand that our zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment also applies to inmate conduct."

The council has agreed to pay $609,268.80 to a trust account set up by the law firm Jester, Gibson & Moore, LLP, and $940,731.30 to the individual plaintiffs for wages and compensatory damages. When the latter amount is divided by fifteen, the total comes to $62,715.42 — hardly a windfall for women who found that working in the jail constituted much more punishment than they should have been made to endure.

Click to read Walker and Walker v. Denver Sheriff Department and Terri Eddy, et al., v. City and County of Denver.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts