RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's not hard to conjure up how difficult life could be for women who work in prisons. Obviously, there are the long hours and the tough conditions. But female prison workers sometimes have to deal with an additional burden. We're talking about sexual harassment. According to a slew of recent lawsuits, the problem isn't just coming from inmates behind bars. Eleanor Klibanoff is a reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, and this morning, she brings us a story about the sexual harassment female prison guards say they face from their co-workers. And a warning here - this story contains graphic descriptions of alleged sexual assault.
ELEANOR KLIBANOFF: Jennifer Dennis came from a family of correctional officers. As a single mom, she was grateful for her good-paying job at Little Sandy Correctional Complex in rural, northeastern Kentucky. But then her supervisor took an interest in her, and she said her dream job quickly became a nightmare.
JENNIFER DENNIS: At first, it was like rubbing my butt or trying to grab my boobs or trying to pinch my tail.
KLIBANOFF: Then she said Sergeant Stephen Harper began to get more aggressive - like the time he cornered her in a staff bathroom.
DENNIS: He pressed me up against the wall and was trying to get his hand down the top of my shirt and down the - down my pants. He knew he scared me that time because I cried a little bit and I screamed at him.
KLIBANOFF: In 2014, Dennis sued Harper over these incidents, along with three other correctional officers. They accused Harper of repeatedly sexually harassing and assaulting them and other women for years at Little Sandy Correctional Complex. The lawsuit also claims prison leaders failed to respond to these complaints, quote, "creating a culture of indifference." In court documents, the agency argued it responded by promptly investigating complaints and taking appropriate action.
The women's claims echo throughout more than 3,500 pages of sexual harassment complaints filed by employees of Kentucky's Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice in the last six years. That comes out to nearly as many complaints as all other Kentucky state agencies combined.
BRENDA SMITH: Prison is this very gendered environment. It's extremely sexualized.
KLIBANOFF: Brenda Smith is a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., where she studies the intersections of gender, crime and sexuality. Smith said prisons are a unique work environment. They're closed, insular and have long been male-dominated.
SMITH: It's in many ways the Las Vegas rule - what happens here stays here. If there's some discipline to be done, we do it internally.
KLIBANOFF: Well, when that system doesn't work, the alternative is sometimes the legal system. In the last year alone, there have been employee-on-employee sexual harassment settlements against prison systems in Missouri, Arizona, Wisconsin and other states. In 2015, Stephen Harper settled with the four women, and last year, a Kentucky jury ordered the state to pay them $1.6 million. The state is appealing the decision. Reached by phone, Harper declined to comment for this story.
All of the complaints filed with the Kentucky Department of Corrections against Harper came back unsubstantiated, including one from Colleen Payton. When she alleged that Harper exposed himself, tried to kiss her and cornered her in the bathroom, the prison's HR administrator wrote that Harper was, quote, "falsely accused."
COLLEEN PAYTON: It was a slap in the face. It made me feel like they didn't believe me, that they were calling me a liar.
KLIBANOFF: Only about a third of all employee complaints filed with the Kentucky Department of Corrections were substantiated as sexual harassment over the last six years. The department wouldn't address why so few complaints were deemed valid. But in a statement, Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley said his agency has worked to change the culture around sexual harassment over the last two years by increasing training and hiring additional investigators.
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MATT BEVIN: How do you get rid of it? You don't tolerate it.
KLIBANOFF: That's Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin on WHAS talk radio. Bevin didn't respond to requests for comment for this story. But amid a state lawmaker sexual harassment scandal late last year, he touted his zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.
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BEVIN: And when brought forward, you don't pretend it doesn't exist and you don't say you're against it, but then you're not really against it when it comes down to taking specific action. You remove the hypocrisy. That's what you do.
KLIBANOFF: It's been more than a year since the jury ruled against the Kentucky Department of Corrections and six years since the complaints in this lawsuit first surfaced against Sergeant Stephen Harper. But the Department of Corrections has not removed him from his supervisory role.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Klibanoff in Louisville.
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