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State Board Finds Ky. Prison Mishandled Sexual Harassment Complaints

Lisa Suliman, Jennifer Dennis and Colleen Payton, pictured left to right, were part of a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Kentucky Department of Corrections.
Eleanor Klibanoff
Lisa Suliman, Jennifer Dennis and Colleen Payton, pictured left to right, were part of a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

At a state prison in northeastern Kentucky, claims of sexual harassment were poorly investigated, dismissed or ignored entirely, according to a report from the state Personnel Board.

The report, which was first published by the Lexington Herald-Leader, found that the Little Sandy Correctional Complex failed to fully investigate numerous allegations of sexual harassment against Correctional Sergeant Stephen Harper.

The investigator for the Personnel Board found prison leaders created a culture that “may have contributed to acts of sexual harassment and a reluctance to report allegations of sexual harassment.”

Multiple female correctional officers reported that Harper grabbed them, exposed himself and attempted to get them to touch him between 2012 and 2014. Prison leaders ignored the complaints, or deemed them unsubstantiated. Many of the women said they faced retaliation for reporting the harassment.

The Personnel Board investigation found that the prison HR administrator was not trained to investigate sexual harassment cases, and both she and the warden believed claims of sexual harassment reported more than 24 hours after the fact lacked credibility. She did not take sufficient notes or interview all the possible witnesses.

Many employees reported feeling that sexual harassment complaints were “swept under the rug,” according to the report.

Joe Childers represented two women who sued the Department of Corrections, alleging negligence in preventing the sexual harassment. He said this report confirmed what his clients have been saying.

“There was this culture within the Little Sandy prison particularly, and the Department of Corrections more generally, that they didn't take allegations or reports of sexual harassment seriously and didn’t make an attempt to properly investigate or train their investigators,” said Childers.

His clients, along with two other women, settled the lawsuit for $1.5 million in October.

Though the report looked at Little Sandy Correctional Complex specifically, sexual harassment is rampant across Kentucky’s correctional system.

According to a KyCIR investigation, corrections employees report sexual harassment at nearly five times the rate of other state employees. Though those employees make up less than 15 percent of all state employees, they account for nearly half of all complaints filed in the last six years.

Lisa Lamb, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said in a statement that the agency has increased anti-harassment training, increased oversight of the internal investigative process and has undertaken a comprehensive review of department policies.

“We believe the board’s report will help us to continue our positive momentum,” she said.

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eklibanoff@kycir.org or (502) 814.6544.

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