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Lesbian CO at Mich. prison: I was outed in front of inmates, put my life at risk

Bridget Cadena is suing MDOC, alleging she was forced to quit her job after a co-worker harassed her for her sexuality

Parnall Correctional Facility

Bridget Cadena resigned from Parnall Correctional Facility in 2017. Scott Park

By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press

LANSING — A Michigan prison officer says she was forced to quit her job over employee harassment that targeted her because she is gay and put her at heightened risk of sexual violence.

Bridget Cadena could soon get her day in court as jury trials resume around the state. Her lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections was scheduled to go to trial in Jackson County Circuit Court in January, but the case was adjourned because of the pandemic.

Cadena alleges a corrections officer identified her as a lesbian while talking to a kitchen worker in front of male prisoners at Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson. Separately, the same officer referred to her using a derogatory term used against gay women, prompting similar mocking and sexually threatening remarks from prisoners, who were within earshot, the suit alleges.

“These comments ... undermined plaintiff’s ability to perform her duties and maintain discipline and respect with the inmates,” and caused Cadena “valid increased fear of being raped and/or sexually assaulted by an inmate,” the suit alleges.

Cadena complained, but officials did not interview her and she believes no serious investigation took place, the suit alleges.

The department, which is the only defendant in the case, has denied the allegations in court filings. It says it conducted a “robust, two-month investigation” into Cadena’s complaint but “could not find sufficient supporting evidence.”

Cadena, who joined the department in 2014 and transferred to Parnall in July 2016, alleges she was forced to resign in June 2017, at the recommendation of her doctor, because of stress and anxiety attacks from the harassment.

“Leaving that job ... was the saddest day of my life,” she said in a news release. “It destroyed me. I was so sad. I didn’t want to leave even though I was going through everything I went through” because “this was my career.”

Cadena, of Oakland County, sued the department in February 2020, alleging sex discrimination under the state civil rights law, a hostile work environment and retaliation.

Jackson County Circuit Judge Richard LaFlamme refused to dismiss the case in December, though he described the case as “extremely tenuous,” partly because prisoners could have learned about Cadena’s sexual orientation from sources other than the corrections officer Cadena complained about. The Michigan Court of Appeals refused to hear the department’s appeal of that decision in April.

“This incessant, egregious and blatant discrimination against Ms. Cadena was made far worse by the inaction of the Michigan Department of Corrections,” said Royal Oak attorney Jim Rasor, whose firm represents Cadena.

“Instead of doing a proper investigation, instead of relocating her to a safer environment, they allowed this to continue until Bridget had no choice but to resign.”

The complaint alleges that after Cadena complained about the officer who made the remarks, she was informed by her union representative that the officer had been told to stay away from her. But that did not happen, and she was forced to interact with the officer on a daily basis, the complaint alleges

A captain who supervised Cadena saw those interactions and did not intervene, though the captain separately showed another officer a photo of Cadena that he had on his computer and said he found her attractive, the complaint alleges.

In a court filing, the department said that Cadena testified that after she made her complaint, her one-on-one communications with the officer were professional and infrequent and he made no further comments about her sexual orientation.

The department said Cadena was engaged to a female co-worker on the same shift and had shared her sexual orientation with co-workers. Her attempts to blame one co-worker for “any and all prison knowledge of her sexual orientation” is “complete conjecture,” the department said in a court filing.

At a December hearing, Assistant Attorney General Bryan Beach, representing the department, said “dealing with the hostile comments from prisoners is part of the job,” and Cadena did not request a reassignment or ask for help.