The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Sexual Harassment of Women Prison Workers in Michigan

Apr 30, 2018

Staci Fountain, a former corrections officer at a prison in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, sued the Michigan Department of Corrections over a pattern of sexual harassment by her supervisors. She tells of how, while still in a probationary status on her new job, she was subjected to a “butt check,” in which she was told to climb on top of a desk and retrieve an item from a cupboard above, and later her co-workers “rated” her butt. Those co-workers included two supervisors. Fountain describes a pattern of sexual harassment beginning when one of the supervisors asked her out on a date, which she resisted. She tells of receiving unwanted love letters, one of the supervisors exposing himself to her at work and asking her to perform a sex act, and making other derogatory sexist comments. Another co-worker actually tore open her blouse and one of the supervisors refused to let her go home to change. A fellow female officer of Fountain’s testified in the lawsuit that one of the same supervisors threatened to bend her over a desk and spank her.

Fountain found relief for a period when she was able to transfer to the midnight shift under a female supervisor, Captain Bonnie Barnes, known for protecting women from harassment. Still Fountain endured being reminded repeatedly that once Barnes retired she would be gone, too.

Eventually, Fountain filed a harassment complaint after Barnes retired. She says her supervisors retaliated against her. For example, she recalls being sent alone with a crew of prisoners carrying picks and shovels to dig up the prison yard, a task no one else had ever been asked to do. Eventually Fountain was fired from her job for flimsy reasons.

Fountain’s is just one of many similar stories of sexual harassment of female employees of the Michigan Department of Corrections described in a Detroit Free Press investigation. Several other women describe getting little help when they do file a complaint. The Free Press found corrections employees filed 186 complaints of sexual harassment between 2015 and 2017 alone, with only 30 ending in discipline. Many women officers say it’s common for male supervisors and co-workers to tell them they have to expect a certain amount of harassment as part of their jobs. The stories of numerous others show the retaliation Fountain experienced is common.

The prisons where women corrections employees work are often located in remote rural areas where there are no decent-paying alternative jobs around. As a result, many are hesitant to even file a complaint when they experience harassment.

Women who sue over retaliation by the Corrections Department can often expect little help from the courts. The Michigan Supreme Court, for example, dismissed Staci Fountain’s lawsuit in 2017 claiming she couldn’t prove intent in her firing.

The stories of women corrections officers who have come forward in the face of everything stacked against them shows their tremendous courage. Their story is only the beginning of what is likely to come out in the future.