Ala. sheriff's office to pay $2M over sexual harassment claims made by female COs

The agreement will end the DOJ’s lawsuit which alleged the sheriff's office allowed female COs at the Mobile Metro Jail to be exposed to sexual harassment from inmates

By Warren Kulo

MOBILE, Ala. — The U.S. Department of Justice said Monday it had reached an agreement with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, with the sheriff’s office paying $2.02 million over sexual harassment claims made in 2021 by female corrections officers who said they were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment.

The Justice Department announced the settlement agreement Monday morning. The agreement will end the DOJ’s lawsuit which alleged the MCSO allowed female officers at the Mobile Metro Jail to be exposed to extreme sexual harassment from inmates.

Mobile County Sheriff Paul Burch, however, said in a statement Monday afternoon no agreement has been reached.

“The case is in the hands of the Federal Court for review,” Burch said. “We have not agreed to all the terms of this settlement and it has not been signed by our office.  We will comment on the settlement once it is finalized and signed.”

The incidents which were the basis for the lawsuit all occurred under former Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, who was named in the lawsuit individually along with the MCSO as a whole.

Cochran served as Mobile County sheriff from 2005-2022, opting to not seek reelection last year. He backed then-Capt. Paul Burch as his successor, with Burch winning the November election and taking office in January.

The lawsuit filed by the DOJ says the female corrections officers “were regularly subjected to severe and pervasive sexual harassment in the workplace by male inmates and that, despite the employees’ numerous reports to jail supervisors objecting to the harassment, the sheriff’s office did not take the complaints seriously and failed to take prompt and effective action to remedy this harassing conduct.”

In addition, the lawsuit also said male inmates would frequently expose their genitals to the female officers, masturbate in front of them and direct sexual slurs, sexual propositions, threats of sexual violence and sexually degrading comments towards them.

“Employers must take appropriate action to protect their employees from sexual harassment in the workplace,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Just like any other workplace, jails must take steps necessary to ensure that female employees are not subject to a sexually hostile work environment in any form.”

The 12 female officers initially filed sex discrimination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2021. The EEOC investigated the allegations and found there was sufficient basis to believe the women were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment, forwarding the findings to the Justice Department.

The lawsuit, which alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

The settlement, which must still be approved in federal court, also requires the sheriff to implement policies to prevent and remedy future sex-based harassment:

  • Develop a comprehensive inmate sexual misconduct policy
  • Train all jail employees on the new policy related to inmate sexual misconduct
  • Maintain a housing area dedicated to inmates found guilty of sexual misconduct
  • Appoint an Inmate Sexual Misconduct Disciplinary Hearing Officer to monitor and track compliance with the new inmate sexual misconduct policy

The $2.02 million monetary settlement will be placed in a fund which will be used to compensate the female officers who were harmed by the MCSO’s failure to address the women’s complaints of a sexually-hostile workplace.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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