Sexual Harassment Called
Pervasive In Prison System
By DWIGHT F. BLINT, Courant Staff Writer
Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in the state's prison system and is often ignored or downplayed by top prison officials, state human rights investigators say.
In a draft report, the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities said it found deficiencies in the correction department's policies, investigative procedures, discipline and training in regard to sexual harassment. The report made available Monday lists almost 80 recommended changes.
The CHRO suggests prison officials adopt a clearer definition of sexual harassment, conduct more timely investigations, put more emphasis on prevention and eliminate a policy requiring complainants to sign a statement indicating that they are also a subject of the investigation and may be punished.
CHRO officials began investigating claims of sexual harassment within the prison system late last year after a group of female correction officers said their complaints were routinely mishandled or ignored, and that they were often retaliated against for filing them. The women have since filed a lawsuit against the agency.
During testimony before the state legislature's labor and public employees committee and the CHRO, the women told of being routinely sexually harassed by male co-workers.
Correction Commissioner John J. Armstrong announced on Tuesday, the day after the report began circulating, that he is stepping down from his post. He contends that when he made his decision, he had not seen the CHRO's preliminary report on harassment.
Armstrong has maintained that sexual harassment is not a pervasive problem in his department - noting that only about 20 complaints were filed each year in his agency, which employs roughly 7,000 people.
But CHRO investigators say they have determined the number of complaints is low because confidence in the department's sexual harassment complaint process has eroded.
Investigators found that correction officials frequently misunderstood and misapplied the legal standard applicable to sexual harassment, failed to adequately discipline individuals guilty of sexual harassment and sometimes punished or threatened to discipline complainants for failing to report an incident on the day it occurred.
Correction officials also at times investigated complainants - sometimes disciplining them for inappropriate banter.
The investigation "confirms what we have been told informally and in the public hearings," said CHRO spokeswoman Lena Ferguson.
Ferguson, who described the finding as "troubling," said investigators were most surprised by the structural problems within the correction department's affirmative action unit, which is charged with investigating sexual harassment complaints.
"So many of the issues that were brought to our concern rose from the organizational deficiencies of that unit," said Ferguson.
Affirmative action officers frequently delayed reviewing sexual harassment complaints, failed to maintain confidentiality, discouraged people from filing complaints and ceased investigations if a complainant also filed with the CHRO, the report said.
Human rights officials also found that affirmative action officers routinely downplayed the seriousness of complaints filed by females. One example involved a female correction officer who complained that an inmate had masturbated in her presence.
CHRO officials said they were troubled that the officer who investigated the event characterized the inmate as "undressing and simulating washing himself" in his report.
"He also minimized the conduct of the victim's co-workers and supervisors, and completed a seriously flawed investigation," wrote CHRO investigators. "When DOC top-level staff testified, they also downplayed the seriousness of the allegations and minimized conduct. Indeed, they suggested that encountering naked men and men masturbating was common in a prison setting."
Correction officials declined to comment on the report's details.
"We look forward to receiving a final version of the report so that we may review the commission's recommendations," said Brian Garnett, director of communications for the department. "As we have throughout, we intend to continue to work cooperatively and proactively with the CHRO in addressing the issue of sexual harassment."
Prison officials have been making efforts to reduce sexual harassment and to improve the handling of complaints. The agency has hired a new director of affirmative action. The unit has also initiated new policies and procedures to improve the tracking of cases and to identify repeat offenders, Ferguson said.
In addition, the agency has entered a memorandum of understanding with state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. The agreement came after Gov. John G. Rowland asked Blumenthal to investigate sexual harassment complaints within the Department of Correction and to evaluate the agency's affirmative action unit.
Representatives of the women's group that has been following the issue said they were encouraged by the CHRO report.
"The investigators found pretty unequivocally that what the women have been saying [has been] true," said Beverly Brakeman, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for Women.
But at the same time, Brakeman said, the level of offensive behavior that was allowed to go unpunished in the prisons shocked her.
"A fairly despicable culture of abuse was allowed to flourish," she said.
Brakeman said she hopes that Armstrong's replacement will have the affirmative action background and the leadership skills needed to enact the commission's recommendations. She said she and representatives of other area women's groups planned to discuss the issue with the governor's office.
"Just getting rid of Armstrong doesn't solve the problem," Brakeman said.