Rampant sexual harassment among corrections department employees is among many problems Arizona’s first female prisons chief is confronting.
The department logged 176 sexual harassment complaints in the last three years, state records show. In the last fiscal year, nearly half of 47 complaints resulted in some sort of discipline, with eight still under investigation.
The department has 9,644 employees. “Those are large numbers, given the work force,” said Mary Jo O’Neill, a regional attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
By comparison, the state Department of Economic Security, which has nearly an equal number of employees, recorded 13 complaints in the last three years. Typically, the formal complaints are just the “tip of the iceberg,” O’Neill said. “It means there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on.”
Department of Corrections Director Dora Schriro started her job July 1, inheriting a severely overcrowded prison system, with remedies now being considered in a special session of the state Legislature.
Sexual harassment also is a concern that will be addressed, Schriro said Friday. Noting complaints declined from 68, to 61, then to 47 in the last three fiscal years, Schriro said her mission is to “accelerate the rate of the improvement.”
A planned department reorganization will help, she said. For example, a new labor relations office will report directly to her, and the agency’s code of conduct is being reviewed. Schriro said she also stopped the practice of forcing alleged victims to take polygraph tests, because she feared it could discourage some people from filing valid complaints.
O’Neill called the polygraph tests "extremely unusual" and said she was unaware of any private business or government agency that used them in such investigations.
"It seems to give a message that ‘We don’t believe you,’ " she said.
O’Neill also said she was concerned about the way DOC classifies the outcomes of its sexual harassment investigations. Often, complaints that seemed to indicate sexual harassment were instead deemed violations of workplace conduct standards.
More than two months after a Tribune public records request, DOC officials released documents providing details on 39 allegations of sexual harassment during the state’s most recent fiscal year. Officials blacked out the names of alleged victims and harassers.
Out of the 39, internal DOC investigations declared seven to be credible cases of sexual harassment, the records show.
But, DOC officials disciplined corrections officers for conduct violations or failing to properly supervise a subordinate in 12 other cases. In two other cases, the alleged harasser resigned while under investigation and no final determinations were made.
In one reported incident last spring, for example, a physical plant supervisor admitted to several conversations that were "explicit, graphic and sexual in nature" with a clerk-typist, according to the documents. The supervisor inquired about the woman’s sex life, "remarked on masturbation, referred to her breasts and made comments regarding a man’s erect penis."
The supervisor was suspended for 40 hours without pay for violating workplace conduct standards.
O’Neill said that case and others seemed like sexual harassment to her and the DOC should call such behavior what it is.
"You can’t really sugarcoat it," she said. "It’s ugly. It’s painful."
The behavior is not necessarily surprising, though, she said.
"When you have places that have been predominantly male . . . there always seems to be a period of sexual harassment," she said.
Amber Giedt, 25, who worked as a corrections officer for a year at DOC’s Alhambra facility in Phoenix, said sexual harassment of female prison guards by fellow employees is out of control.
Female employees are subjected to sexual innuendo or even hostility all too frequently, but women report it only occasionally because they fear retaliation, she said.
A document provided by Giedt shows that an EEOC investigation concluded she was sexually harassed, and also that DOC retaliated against her for reporting the incidents by transferring her to a different office.
The June 13 letter, signed by EEOC district director Charles Burtner, said Giedt was fired after failing a polygraph test — which Burtner stated was another example of retaliation.
Giedt, an El Mirage resident, said she may end up suing DOC over the case.
"I don’t want anyone else to go through this," she said.