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Prison workers in sex bias suit settle with state for $2.5 million

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Six correctional officers who worked at the state prison in Los Lunas have reached a $2.5 million settlement with the state to resolve allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.

The current and former officers, all women, filed a civil rights complaint in 2015 describing a “sexualized, violent environment” in which male colleagues exposed themselves, shared graphic pictures and videos, made derogatory comments and inappropriately touched female officers. They said supervisors knew about it but failed to take appropriate action, according to the lawsuit.

The state Corrections Department, in turn, denied the allegations and said the settlement was made to avoid the cost of continued litigation.

Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the women – five of whom have since left the prison – hope the lawsuit leads to better working conditions for female officers and a recognition that a corrections career isn’t just for men.

“Our clients are obviously hopeful that, in coming forward and bringing light to the hyper-sexualized environment of the facility, that other women will be heard in the future, that they’ll be more likely to be believed, and that most importantly, they just hope it doesn’t happen,” Schauer Ives said.

The 143-page lawsuit named 25 current and former employees of the state Corrections Department as defendants. It alleged that female officers were “subject to unthinkable and constant sexually based violence and harassment.”

The settlement agreement made clear that the Corrections Department disputes those allegations. The $2.5 million payment simply “represents the costs associated with the disruption that continued litigation may have on NMCD’s operations,” according to the settlement agreement.

Spokesmen for the state didn’t respond to requests for comment. When the suit was filed in 2015, Corrections Department officials said they were putting five employees on administrative leave and launching an internal investigation. It wasn’t clear whether any employees were ultimately disciplined.

Schauer Ives released the settlement Wednesday after a request from the Journal. Under state law and by the terms of the settlement itself, she said, the document was confidential for six months but can now be made public.

New Mexico Political Report, an online news organization, first reported the settlement, which was signed in January.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Many Kennedy, Niadra Lemons, Allison Eastman, Antoinette De La Cruz, Benita Joe and Nicole Romero.

The settlement itself doesn’t say how the $2.5 million will be split up.

In a legal response to the complaint, the supervisors and correctional officers named as defendants in the lawsuit said they “acted in good faith, without malice, and within the scope of their lawful duties.”

The plaintiffs leveled a variety of individual allegations about misconduct they said they had endured on the job. Some said male workers had either grabbed them or tried to.

Among the derogatory comments attributed to male officers in the suit: “Women shouldn’t be in Corrections; they need to stay home and take care of the house. That’s where they belong.”

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