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PLN editor quoted in article about staff sexual harassment at Maine jail

Bangor Daily News, April 1, 2019. https://bangordailynews.com/2019/04/01/mainefoc...

Penobscot County Jail guards sexually harassed their co-workers and kept their jobs

This story contains adult language and may not be suitable for young readers.

The Penobscot County Jail in Bangor found that at least five male guards either sexually harassed their female colleagues, created a hostile work environment, or otherwise failed to abide by the ethical standards required for their law enforcement positions in recent years, but jail officials allowed the guards to keep their jobs, according to information obtained through a public records request.

The guards, three of whom held leadership positions, received verbal and written reprimands, were suspended without pay for up to two weeks, or were demoted, but none were fired. All still work at the jail. One remains a supervisor.

Some of those men were also named in sex discrimination lawsuits against the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office that resulted in payouts of taxpayer money or had multiple policy violations in their personnel files, including for propositioning a recently released inmate. One corporal’s “humiliating” treatment of female staff triggered an independent investigation. His punishment for “persistently” abusing his power was a demotion to the position of corrections officer.

The female staff who sued said in their lawsuits that jail administrators did not adequately protect them or punish the men. All of the women have since left their jobs.

One female corrections officer had “complained to her supervisors repeatedly without anything being done to stop the abuse. She had no one to turn to, no one to protect her, and no one to stop [the corporal’s] abuse,” according to a 2014 court document.

The records obtained by the BDN suggest that misconduct is more common than county officials publicly acknowledged in the past. Sheriff Troy Morton said, however, that the number of disciplinary actions does not indicate a pattern of unacceptable culture. Rather, “it demonstrates a pattern of enforcement of the Sheriff Department’s policies to prevent such a culture,” he said.

On Dec. 3, the Bangor Daily News uncovered how a former guard, Cpl. Steven Buzzell, sent numerous explicit images of himself to colleagues, former inmates and others for about a decade, and was alleged to have sexually assaulted an inmate in the jail’s laundry room. He resigned in June amid an internal investigation.

Having multiple cases of misconduct, especially in a jail setting where corrections officers control the well-being of other people, signals a deeper problem that likely warrants close attention, said two civil rights experts.

“It’s a pretty horrific situation,” said David Webbert, an employment and civil rights attorney in Maine. “By now there should be at least one termination, probably more, because that culture is unacceptable. What they’re doing is obviously not working.”

Most of the jail’s approximately 100 employees have never caused any problems, Morton said.

“The jail can be a challenging work environment and staff must rely on each other to safely perform their jobs. Sometimes that makes people hesitant to file complaints about co-workers,” Morton said in a seven-page statement. “Unfortunately, if problems are not reported or observed, the Sheriff Department cannot address them. Regardless of the source, all complaints are investigated and acted upon if warranted.”

Former Sheriff Glenn Ross recalled initiating the firing process twice in his 12-year tenure, which ended in 2014, but he didn’t remember if he was ultimately successful in terminating those employees. For more severe discipline, such as firings, the Penobscot County commissioners, who oversee the jail, have to approve the sheriff’s order. The administration must have “just cause” to issue specific punishments, and employees often appeal those decisions.

Penobscot County Administrator Bill Collins could not recall any of the jail’s employees being fired over the last decade or so.

“It is a basic tenet of due process that any discipline be individualized based on the unique factors in each case. To decide in advance that every case, if proven, should result in termination would violate due process and fundamental fairness,” Peter Baldacci, the longtime chairman of the county commission, said in a statement. “Whenever a violation of policy is found, it is dealt with fairly and appropriately.”

None of the five guards replied to emailed questions.

In the course of reporting the story about Buzzell, who is still certified to work as a corrections officer, more than 10 sources told the BDN they had experienced, witnessed or heard about additional guards acting inappropriately with female staff and inmates.

So, on Dec. 5, the BDN asked the Penobscot County government for records relating to the potential discipline of 13 guards. On March 20, the county provided final discipline notices for five of them, spanning behavior over the last five years.

The county did not provide discipline records for Buzzell. It also did not provide discipline records for some employees who were named in sex discrimination lawsuits against the sheriff’s office.

Jail employees’ records can be expunged after a period of time under union contract rules, and the county did not provide records if the discipline was under dispute.

The records for the five employees provide a window into additional guards’ misbehavior as they sometimes cite more cases, and show how some guards have tried to downplay or give false statements about what they did. At least one guard fought his discipline at three oversight levels, over a couple years, showing the amount of time that jail administrators can spend defending disciplinary decisions even when guards are allowed to keep their jobs.

Discipline records may be expunged, but lawsuits aren’t.

Three guards, including Buzzell, whose alleged sexual misconduct appeared to carry on for years, were named in a 2009 lawsuit against the county. A former female corrections officer alleged that Buzzell, corrections officer Christopher Boulier and their supervisor, Sgt. Scott Basso, made repeated sexual remarks and asked lewd questions about her personal life and the female inmates she oversaw.

The men allegedly asked her what type of underwear she wore, whether she moaned or screamed during sex, what her favorite sexual position was, how the female inmates looked naked after she performed strip searches and how it felt to pat down female inmates. Boulier and Basso, who still work at the jail, also referenced having a threesome, she said.

She told the men she “didn’t appreciate the offensive conduct, but it continued,” she wrote in her complaint. But she was reluctant to tell administrators “for fear of retaliation which I understood did happen to another female corrections officer.”

Ultimately, she did report the behavior, which managers investigated. But, even though she changed shifts, she still had to work occasionally with the men, she said. Meanwhile, once-friendly colleagues stopped talking to her; she was suddenly assigned “bad jobs” nobody wanted; and she faced regular criticism about her job performance, according to her complaint.

She quit two months later and won an undisclosed settlement with the county in 2010, according to court records.

It would not be the only time her supervisor, Basso, was faulted for harassment. The jail suspended him without pay for two weeks last summer for six policy violations, including “negligent supervision,” “prohibited conduct,” “inability to perform duties” and “sexual harassment,” according to his discipline records.

The county did not provide an explanation for those findings, but it did provide a three-page summary of the inappropriate behavior that occurred on his shift, for which one of his subordinates, former Cpl. Doug Libby, was demoted to corrections officer last summer.

Libby was found to have participated in “unprofessional behaviors” that involved subjecting two female guards to lewd nicknames and teasing, including continued jokes about one woman’s nickname of “Peach,” which arose out of sexual innuendo, according to his discipline record. Libby was also faulted for not addressing or reporting it.

“Sexual harassment in the workplace has become a major problem for business and industry, and the source of expanding litigation,” Richard Clukey, the jail administrator, wrote in Libby’s discipline letter. “Unfortunately, the current allegations of sexual harassment and your unwillingness or inability to properly deal with this situation, have resulted in significant problems and issues for a variety of personnel as well as the organization.”

Records also detailed guards’ mistreatment of inmates.

One corrections officer, Nicholas Mitton, admitted to jail administrators late last year that he Facebook messaged an inmate soon after she was released, but said he wasn’t trying to date her and hadn’t messaged her while he was working, according to a summary of an internal affairs investigation.

But the evidence showed otherwise: Mitton’s Facebook messages stated that he wanted to take her on a date. He also reassured her to not worry about his job, and told her details about his work, such as that he had found a “big ol crack rock on a new arrest.” In addition, records showed he was at work when he messaged her.

“There is absolutely no place or justification for you as a Corrections Officer to be asking a female inmate for a date, in less than a few hours after she is released from the jail,” Clukey, the jail administrator, said in Mitton’s Dec. 14 discipline letter.

Mitton’s punishment was four days of unpaid suspension. It was the third time he had been disciplined in two years.

It would not be the only time her supervisor, Basso, was faulted for harassment. The jail suspended him without pay for two weeks last summer for six policy violations, including “negligent supervision,” “prohibited conduct,” “inability to perform duties” and “sexual harassment,” according to his discipline records.

The county did not provide an explanation for those findings, but it did provide a three-page summary of the inappropriate behavior that occurred on his shift, for which one of his subordinates, former Cpl. Doug Libby, was demoted to corrections officer last summer.

Libby was found to have participated in “unprofessional behaviors” that involved subjecting two female guards to lewd nicknames and teasing, including continued jokes about one woman’s nickname of “Peach,” which arose out of sexual innuendo, according to his discipline record. Libby was also faulted for not addressing or reporting it.

“Sexual harassment in the workplace has become a major problem for business and industry, and the source of expanding litigation,” Richard Clukey, the jail administrator, wrote in Libby’s discipline letter. “Unfortunately, the current allegations of sexual harassment and your unwillingness or inability to properly deal with this situation, have resulted in significant problems and issues for a variety of personnel as well as the organization.”

Records also detailed guards’ mistreatment of inmates.

One corrections officer, Nicholas Mitton, admitted to jail administrators late last year that he Facebook messaged an inmate soon after she was released, but said he wasn’t trying to date her and hadn’t messaged her while he was working, according to a summary of an internal affairs investigation.

But the evidence showed otherwise: Mitton’s Facebook messages stated that he wanted to take her on a date. He also reassured her to not worry about his job, and told her details about his work, such as that he had found a “big ol crack rock on a new arrest.” In addition, records showed he was at work when he messaged her.

“There is absolutely no place or justification for you as a Corrections Officer to be asking a female inmate for a date, in less than a few hours after she is released from the jail,” Clukey, the jail administrator, said in Mitton’s Dec. 14 discipline letter.

Mitton’s punishment was four days of unpaid suspension. It was the third time he had been disciplined in two years.

The union, AFSCME Council 93, meanwhile, argued that Gardner’s discipline was too extreme and cited five other examples of staff behavior, including a sergeant making sexual comments, that had resulted in less severe punishment. But when Gardner appealed, county commissioners, the Maine Board of Arbitration and Conciliation, and Kennebec County Superior Court all upheld his discipline.

The matter didn’t stop there. Unsatisfied with his punishment, three women who worked for the jail filed a lawsuit against Gardner that also faulted the sheriff’s office and the county for failing to end his conduct.

“Based on past experience, where complaints … were ignored by management, I feel that he will begin treating female employees badly again,” one woman said in her complaint of sex discrimination filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

(One of the three women who sued, former corrections officer Stephanie Burgess, was also found to have violated jail policy by leaving a cell phone, money and her phone number for an inmate to contact her with after being released, according to a later court filing. She was suspended, the filing said.)

The county and the three women agreed to a $50,000 settlement in 2018, according to a Feb. 8, 2018, email from the plaintiffs’ attorney, David J. Van Dyke, that was obtained by the BDN. Van Dyke died two weeks later.

The discipline process is purposefully set up to have checks and balances, said Ross, the former sheriff.

“You have to look at the conduct, and do what’s right and hope that everybody that reviews it above you does what’s right,” Ross said. “It can be frustrating at times, I will say.”

Ross was sheriff when a former female jail cook, Dawn Chambers, was sentenced to a month behind bars in 2005 after admitting she twice had oral sex with a male inmate who worked in her kitchen. Chambers, who was a civilian employee and not a corrections officer, was fired two days after authorities learned of the incidents.

Ross said he supports the protections afforded by unions, but he is in favor of maintaining discipline records in employees’ personnel files. Currently, under union contract rules, the jail can’t take employees’ past discipline into consideration when they break the rules again, if a certain amount of time has passed. Some violations stay in employees’ records longer than others, but all can be removed within five years.

“You know it’s happened before. The employees know it’s happened before. But when you have to take action on a subsequent event, it’s like it’s never happened before, and that’s a problem,” Ross said.

Sylvia Hebert, the AFSCME Council 93 union representative for the jail’s supervisors unit, did not return a phone call or email seeking comment.

As an abuse of power, sexual harassment is dangerous in any workplace, let alone a highly regulated jail environment, said Webbert, the civil rights attorney. Often, the behavior that’s known to administrators is only a portion of what’s actually happening, and discipline needs to send a message. After being told the findings and punishments for the jail employees in question, Webbert said it didn’t appear to be enough.

“It’s under-reaction,” Webbert said. “There needed to be a much more significant response.”

Baldacci disagreed. “To decide on the correct level of discipline in each case requires knowledge of the specific circumstances. We are not free to describe those, in order to respond. Without knowing the specifics, it is not possible to second-guess whether more severe or less severe action should be taken in a particular case,” he said.

Paul Wright, who is the editor of Prison Legal News, a publication produced by and for prisoners, said he has been filing public records requests and asking for jail and prison settlements from around the country since the early 1990s. In the beginning he expected to find that the government paid out significant sums of money when inmates were harmed, he said. But more often, the money went to facilities’ own employees, he said.

“Just from a credibility standard, how can you tell taxpayers with a straight face, with a shred of honesty and decency, that you’re here to serve the public when you can’t even protect your own employees from their fellow coworkers?” he said.

What’s more, it appears to be rare for jails and prisons to fire employees, said Wright, who is also the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which advocates for prisoners’ rights.

“The rule of thumb is the harassers almost always keep their jobs. The whistleblowers and complainers are almost always out of a job,” he said.

Corrections officers are required to be certified by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, but internal disciplinary sanctions wouldn’t necessarily trigger the revocation process unless the officer has committed a de-certifiable offense, nearly all of which are crimes.

Former inmates have won payouts from Penobscot County for alleged abuse, too, as recently as 2016.

In April of that year, the county settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount with a former inmate who claimed that a guard, then-corrections officer William E. Mulholland, kissed and touched her without permission, and intruded on her as she showered, while she was held at the jail in 2013. Mulholland, who resigned, denied the allegations in court filings. The former inmate said the ordeal aggravated her “emotional distress and PTSD” from previous incidents with additional officers at the jail.

Collins, the county administrator, said the jail has taken steps in the past year to address workplace conduct.

This winter, the sheriff met with each shift to “re-instill what each and every person’s responsibility is,” Collins said. In addition, a lawyer with the firm Rudman Winchell conducted a training on sexual harassment for all county employees. And in January, the county filled a vacancy for its director of human relations, who serves as an outside resource if “someone feels [like], ‘I can’t speak,’ or ‘My supervisor is preventing me from having my concerns addressed,’” Collins said.

The new human relations director will also have input on department policies and discipline, he said.

“What I see is that, clearly, what we are attempting to do … is to be closer to people,” Collins said. “We need to be extra vigilant and close to not only the people we serve, meaning the inmates, but the employees themselves.”