In a major win against the state Department of Corrections, a federal grand jury ruled that the DOC can be held responsible for the sexual harassment of female nurses inside the prison. The lawsuit involved 28 nurses from four separate state prisons. It claimed that the DOC was responsible for allowing a sexually hostile environment. The grand jury awarded each of the nurses between $37,500 and $97,500 in damages.
Attorney Wes Pittman represented one of the nurses. "It is a magnificent verdict that finally provides justice for these women, who have complained hard and loud for years with no one in the prison system listening or providing relief whatsoever," Pittman said. It was not known late Friday if the state would appeal the verdict.
The nurses -- Kathleen Rudolph, Beverly Jenkins, Patricia Anderson, Nancy Mitchell, Sharon Hagan, Marsha Bigler, Bonnie Farrior, Edna Merido Hall, Marla Walker, Sandra Lewis, Mary Adiar, Carol Woods, Melanie Beckford, Charlene Fontenu, Tila De La Cruz, Lee Wascher, Linda Jones, Joyce Meyer, Sushma Parekh, Lourdes Silvagnoli, Janet Smith, Michelle Pollock, Vesna Poirier, Susan Black, Donna Pixley, Paula LaCroix, Olivia Crisafi and Jean Garrett -- said in their complaint the department "fostered" the sexual harassment of female nurses by prisoners in the four prisons where the nurses worked.
The nurses named Washington Correctional Institution in Washington County, Martin Correctional Institution and Lake Correctional Institution, both near Orlando, and Glades Correctional Institution on the East Coast near West Palm Beach. The nurses cited working with inmates in "close management custody," meaning they've been separated from the prison's general population for various reasons.
The plaintiffs said the department "maintained, fostered and condoned a sexually hostile work environment" by not implementing procedures to stop the harassment; train the nurses in techniques to stop the harassment; investigate complaints; and discouraged the nurses from filing harassment complaints. Pittman said that in October 2000, 11 of the nurses at the Washington County facility wrote to Secretary of Corrections Michael Moore, with their complaints. Pittman said it was 18 months before the department began an investigation, which ultimately was assigned to an assistant warden within the Washington County facility.
Pittman said that was "a very rare and unusual move, avoiding a correct and true investigation by the independent Inspector General's office in Tallahassee." The attorneys for the female nurses in this case have three additional cases pending in Florida. Each case has multiple plaintiffs, Pittman said. "This is not the only prison within the state of Florida that has these problems," he said. The case this week was tried in federal court in Panama City because the district includes Washington County.