Corrections Corp. of America Reaches Settlement in Idaho Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
On February 23rd, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) settled a lawsuit brought by a former nurse at the Idaho Correctional Center (ICC) named Michelle Pierce, who claimed she had been fired in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment and abuse by her colleagues. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
Pierce’s disturbing story is one of several to have come out in the wake of Idaho’s decision to take back control of the facility last year. Under CCA’s watch, ICC was nicknamed “gladiator school” for its high levels of violence. When Idaho began the process of transitioning the facility back to the state last year, investigators and three whistleblowers revealed that IDOC employees had potentially manipulated prisoner medical records to cover up neglect and mismanagement that took place while it was still under CCA’s control. Pierce’s story provides an additional perspective on the atmosphere permitted, and sometimes encouraged, by CCA leadership within ICC.
Pierce was hired as a Licensed Practical Nurse at ICC in 2012 when CCA was running the facility. Her primary job was to run the medication cart, conducting rounds in the housing units to distribute prescriptions to prisoners. Guards were required to accompany her on those rounds as a safety measure.
On the night of September 13, 2012, Pierce went into a housing unit to collect “kites,” which are forms that prisoners fill out when they want to see medical staff or report a health issue. Pierce encountered three male CO’s in the unit: Officers Spurgess, Vasquez and Omerevich.
The following exchange took place:
In front of the other officers, Officer Omerevich asked Ms. Pierce if she would show him her breasts.
Ms. Pierce refused.
Officer Omerevich persisted and even asked if Ms. Pierce would let him touch her breasts.
He stood in front of the door, blocking the exit, and refusing to let her leave until she complied.
Neither Officer Spurgess nor Officer Vasquez told Officer Omerevich that his behavior was inappropriate.
In fact, they chuckled, and one of them said “Just let him already.”
After the incident, Pierce was so embarrassed that she didn’t file a harassment report. But she did tell her supervisor, Nurse Sarah Field, about what happened. Field’s response was, “That sounds like Omerevich.” Field would later tell Pierce she should “become more flirtatious with the officers, and that then they would do what she wanted.”
The medical offices in which Pierce and Field worked were home to constant sexual advances by guards. Pierce recalls several officers, on multiple occasions, dropping dollar bills on the floor while making comments about “paying for services.” A few weeks after the incident with Officer Omerevich, another officer identified as Captain Weibe entered their offices and began to flirt with Field. The lawsuit states that Pierce witnessed Weibe and Field exchange sexual banter before Weibe “fondled Field’s breasts.”
Even the most harmless small talk between Pierce and her colleagues was subject to perversion and innuendo. Pierce once told a colleague identified as Officer Kelly that she didn’t have the Monster energy drink she typically liked to have during the work day. When Officer Kelly offered her a Rockstar energy drink and she declined it, saying she didn’t like the taste, Kelly said, “Like a shot of [semen]?” On a separate occasion, Officer Kelly told Pierce he had “just made her really wet” after she accidentally spilled water on the medication cart.
When Pierce did file complaints, no action was taken. Pierce once filed a formal complaint against an inmate named Chris Gardner, who she said routinely violated prison policy by referring to her by her first name and inquiring about her children. He made “inappropriate comments” to her as well. Pierce notified the Chief of Security who told her to fill out a 51-C internal complaint. She did, but Gardner was never moved off of her unit or reprimanded; he remained on her rounds and the harassment continued.
One day in October of 2012, Pierce encountered two officers sitting at a desk, identified as Officers Seiple and Hegulnd. Seiple asked Pierce what she thought of another officer, named Tasso. Pierce said she had no problems with Tasso, at which point Seiple began talking about being “Tasso Certified.”
Seiple picked up the phone. He called another officer, Officer Fluharty, and asked him if he was Tasso Certified. Seiple told Pierce that she and Tasso were “sexually frustrated” and “needed to start having sex in order to get Officer Tasso to lighten up.”
Officer Hegulnd joined the conversation. He told Pierce that, in order to get Tasso Certified, “you just need to have a vagina on the back of your head.” This was an apparent reference to a scar Pierce had on the back of her head from a car accident.
Seiple got off the phone, and he and Hegulnd continued making inappropriate comments. Hegulnd began mocking CCA’s new sexual harassment policy, calling it “a bunch of crap.” The two officers then escorted Pierce on her rounds for that night.
Afterward, Pierce left the unit and ran into another officer who noticed she was distraught and trying not to cry. She told the officer what happened with Seiple and Hegulnd, and the officer told her to report the incident to Lt. Gabbitas.
When she did, Gabbitas told Pierce not to file a report until she met with Captain Weibe — the man who Pierce watched fondle her boss’s breasts in the office just a few weeks before. She met with Weibe nonetheless, and an hour later he said he wanted her to fill out a complaint but couldn’t find a hard copy of the form. Hours later, after her shift was over, a new captain came on to replace Weibe and quickly found the form on an office computer. Pierce stayed late to fill it out.
The next night, Pierce was forced to conduct her rounds with Officer Seiple again. Gabbitas told Pierce it was fine, and that Seiple was “very sorry.” Her complaint was subsequently forgotten, and Pierce was assigned to every shift with Seiple and Hegulnd thereafter.
Pierce suffered a back injury while working a few weeks later and had to take a week off work to recover. When she told CCA, they fired her.
CCA claimed Pierce was being terminated because her nursing license had expired. But Pierce’s license had actually expired back in August, and it was no secret among her supervisors that she was working on getting it renewed. Pierce did not understand her license to be an issue; her superiors had continued to give her shifts with full knowledge that it had expired, in part because they were understaffed (a common problem in private prisons). Furthermore, Pierce was technically certified to do the work she was doing — running the medical cart — through a separate, active license she had obtained.
Nonetheless, CCA Warden Timothy Wengler issued a signed termination letter for her. Pierce tried to appeal and was given a hearing date, but was then told the Warden was refusing to let the process go forward. She showed up for the hearing anyway.
Warden Wengler claimed to be on a conference call and left Pierce waiting in the lobby for hours. Finally, a man named Mr. Evans came out and told Pierce the Warden was refusing to meet with her. Pierce tried to provide her certification forms, but Evans refused to take them. He threatened to call the police if she did not leave the property.
Pierce asked for copies of the complaints she filed, and Evans told her he would not provide them. He threatened to call the police again.
Warden Wengler resigned the following year amid allegations that his staff falsified thousands of hours of staffing records.
Pierce filed her lawsuit on February 14th, 2014. As the lawsuit notes, the conduct described within is in clear violation of CCA’s Code of Conduct and Sexual Harassment Policy. It is also in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 2009, CCA paid $1.3 million to 21 female former employees who were allegedly subjected to “a sex-based hostile work environment and retaliation at an all-male, privately run medium security prison in Olney Springs, Colorado.”
An original version of this post mistakenly suggested that employees of the Correction Corp. of America stand accused of manipulating inmate medical records; the allegations are in fact facing Idaho Dept. of Correction employees who were working at the facility when it was under CCA’s control.