Inmate lawsuit alleges discrimination against women on work release

The lawsuit claims men on work release status are granted significantly greater freedom, privileges and opportunities than women

By Karen Shuey
Reading Eagle

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — A female inmate at Berks County Prison has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Berks County, alleging men on work release status are granted significantly greater freedom, privileges and opportunities.

In the lawsuit filed in U.S. Eastern District Court in Philadelphia on Friday, Theresa A. Victory alleges women on work release are unfairly confined to their prison cells while their male counterparts on work release status are housed in the adjacent Berks County Community Reentry Center. She alleges the only factor creating this unequal treatment is an inmate's gender. And despite the disparities, both men and women pay $200 each month from their wages.

The county has not filed a response to the lawsuit.

County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, chairman of the prison board, said Monday that he has not seen the lawsuit and therefore has no comment on it. Barnhardt is among the 15 individuals named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which is representing Victory in the lawsuit, said she filed the court action on behalf of herself and about 15 other female work release inmates. The website of the nonprofit organization says the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project defends the civil and constitutional rights of incarcerated and institutionalized individuals in the state.

In the lawsuit, Victory alleges that by denying otherwise eligible female prisoners access to housing and services provided to male prisoners in the re-entry center, the defendants are discriminating on the basis of gender in violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantees to equal protection and due process.

Victory, who was sentenced in March to one to five years in the county prison after pleading guilty to drunken driving, alleges that all women committed to Berks County Prison — regardless of their assigned custody level — are housed in the prison while men with work release status are housed in the re-entry center that affords them more freedom and less direct supervision.

Victory says that those at the re-entry center have access to services that help them find work; spend less time confined to their cells; have unfettered access to laundry services; and are entitled to take furloughs after they have been there for one month.

Victory points out in the suit that men and women on work release are charged $50 a week for room and board despite the extra benefits and privileges the men are afforded by being housed in the re-entry center.

The lawsuit also alleges that several correctional officers retaliated against Victory for filing grievances and threatened further punishment if she filed additional complaints in violation of her First Amendment rights.

Victory, who does her work release as a server at a restaurant, alleges that shortly after filing grievances about not being housed in the re-entry center she was moved from an overflow unit in the prison that houses 45 female inmates in dormitory housing to a general population block with locked cells. She says that she was told she was moved because she was too demanding.

She claims she has been subjected to at least eight lockdowns in the prison since July; that laundry services are unreliable, forcing her to wear the same clothing to work day after day; that she has missed work because correctional officers have refused to let her leave; and that her work release status has been threatened if she continues to file complaints.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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