|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter|
Usually, when we give advice, we think we’re being supportive, but despite the good intentions we can end up offending the one we’re trying to help. It would make matters worse if your words of wisdom prompted a million dollar lawsuit, which is exactly what’s happening to corrections officials in New York.
The New York State Department of Correctional Services (NYDOCS) is in hot water over a handbook it recently had to stop distributing to female officers graduating from the department’s academy. The 19-page booklet was written by officials in the 1980s to help women anticipate the challenges they would face in their new jobs. This seemed harmless enough, except for one problem: the booklet hadn’t been updated in a long time. A very long time.
The "Orientation Handbook for Female Staff Working in an Institutional Setting" recommends, for example, that women avoid gossiping at work, eliminate flirtatious behavior, ditch the use of profanity, and dig into a bowl of ice cream when work becomes too demanding. State corrections officer Penny Collins didn’t find the tips helpful or appropriate, so she’s suing the department for sexual harassment and discrimination. Collins says the handbook is just a tiny piece of a much larger problem.
“This handbook demonstrates exactly how female officers are treated in the state of New York,” she explains, “but this case is about so much more. This is about abuse that’s been going on for thirty years in the department.”
Collins began working as a state corrections officer in 2002. Her complaint contains numerous claims of sexual harassment from 2003 to 2005, including sexual advancements from a superior officer and graffiti written about her inside a facility.
“In one of the places I worked, there was only one changing room for men and women,” she adds.
Collins filed her suit last May. In October, she brought the handbook to the New York paper The Post-Standard, which published it on its website. Collins’ lawsuit and the handbook generated some publicity, and NYDOCS decided to pull the guide.
“Penny has experienced many examples of sexual harassment, but what was most egregious was how she was treated when she tried to complain,” says Collins’ lawyer John Valentino. “The retaliation from her employers showed an attitude from within the department that seems to come out of the last generation. And the handbook is just one example.”
According to the department, the issue with the handbook had been on their radar for some time. The department says one of the first things newly appointed corrections commissioner Brian Fischer did was create a women’s task force at the beginning of 2007.
“It isn’t that all of a sudden there was some publicity and we pulled [the book],” says NYDOCS public information director Eric Kriss. “When Brian Fischer took office this year he created a women’s task force to look into issues affecting female inmates and female staff. He asked them to look into this handbook and give recommendations for updating.”
According to Kriss, the department didn’t get to the handbook in time.
“This is a big agency with a $3 billion budget,” he explains. “We deal with 100,000 some inmates in and out and staff too. There’s a lot on the Commissioner’s desk. The booklet was in the pipeline for updating, but we hadn’t gotten there before the lawsuit was filed.”
The book is history for now, and the future of the department’s female-specific advice is uncertain. Kriss isn’t sure if the old book will be revised, if a new one will be offered, or if the entire idea will be scrapped.
“For the moment the material is not being used,” Kriss says. “We’ve recognized it is outdated, and that some people are taking offense. I don’t know if another booklet is going to become a regular part of correctional officers’ trainings.”
This is not the first sexual harassment case NYDOCS has faced in recent memory. Just this past October, Alicia Humig, a CO in Erie County, was awarded $850,000 when a judge found that the corrections department “took the willful and deliberate position to ignore the obvious harassment.”
“I feel like it’s my job to spur them to make changes,” explains Collins. “The safety and security of prisons in New York are jeopardized as long as this is allowed to continue. There’s nothing worse for an officer to feel that they don't have the support of their fellow officers and management.”
While Collins waits for her case to be resolved, she’ll worry less about the handbook’s advice and more on making positive change for her fellow female officers.
Download a copy of the handbook
Read more about the Humig case
More information on sexual harassment in the workplace
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