Prison Life Improving for Nurses

/Attorney-Profile.aspxAttorney Wes Pittman is representing a nurse who was the victim of sexual harassment inside prison. 12 nurses at Washington Correctional Institution were awarded between $37,000 and $97,500 in damages after a federal jury ruled that prison officials sexually harassed them. According to Pittman, the situation at the Washington Correctional Institution is improving. The lawsuit was undoubtedly part of that.

Problems arose while the nurses were working with "close management custody" prisoners, those who had been taken out of the general population for behavioral problems. Washington prison didn't take close management custody prisoners until 1996 or 1997, Pittman said. "They didn't have any problems at first," he said. "Then some prisoners started acting out, and others saw they could get away with it and everybody started doing it.

The prison lost control of the situation." The prison staff failed to enforce its own policies regarding prisoner behavior, Pittman said. Then the management in place at the time made it clear to the nurses their complaints were not welcome, he said. "The guards would just walk away laughing," Pittman said. He said the prisoners would listen for the nurses' arrival, then stand on their toilets or rolled mattresses so they could be seen in the control booth. They would then expose themselves to the nurses and masturbate in their direction while shouting obscenities.

"They called it 'gunning,'" Pittman said. "That denotes the hostility involved." Since 2001, however, the situation began a gradual improvement. In 2003, the state moved the close management prisoners out of Washington C.I. to the Santa Rosa County prison. Other prisons Pittman said the problems experienced at the four prisons named in the lawsuit were not indicative of problems in every prison. He said Raiford prison near Gainesville, where the majority of death row inmates are housed, doesn't have the same behavioral problems.

"The (Raiford) warden didn't have this because he maintained control and enforced policies," Pittman said. "There were a lot of things (Washington C.I.) could have done but didn't do. Once you lose control of a prison, it is very, very difficult to get it back."

He said most of the nurses in the lawsuit have stayed in their prison jobs. Pittman said he doesn't expect the Department of Corrections to appeal the verdict, or contest the remaining lawsuits. The remaining named prisons are Martin Correctional Institution and Lake Correctional Institution, both near Orlando, and Glades Correctional Institution on the East Coast near West Palm Beach. If a settlement cannot be reached in the last three cases, Pittman said, he'll be ready to go forward with trial. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said the department has not decided whether to appeal the verdict, or agree to a settlement in the pending cases.

She replied to a request for comment by e-mailing a news release the department issued shortly after the verdict. In the statement, department Secretary James R. McDonough said he places "the highest priority on the treatment, safety and well-being of our staff" and won't "condone or tolerate any form of abuse or harassment." According to the release, the department has been aware of the harassment and the "difficult behavioral issues" involved with close management prisoners.

"The particular conduct at issue was addressed on an individual basis through the writing of disciplinary reports and the revocation of the few privileges which these inmates have," according to the release. "Given the background of the people who comprise the prison population, it is simply not possible to completely eliminate all inmate misconduct. The department always keeps in mind its paramount mission of safety and security of the public, its staff and the inmates, while balancing the inmates' constitutional rights when taking corrective action."

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