Politics & Government

Court gives blessing to women-only prison jobs

Washington’s prison system didn’t illegally discriminate when it created female-only jobs at women’s prisons, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Department of Corrections created gender-specific positions in 2009 at a time when it was under fire over sexual abuse of female inmates.

“The Department was well-justified in concluding that rampant abuse should not be an accepted part of prison life and taking steps to protect the welfare of inmates under its care,” a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Friday in upholding a lower court’s ruling.

Inmates had alleged male guards had assaulted, fondled and harassed them, traded contraband for sexual favors, and twice impregnated inmates. And the agency settled a lawsuit by prisoners at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy.

Around the same time, it reserved for women 110 positions at Purdy and the smaller Mission Creek Corrections Center in Belfair. Those were front-line jobs patrolling prison grounds, housing units and work sites.

The Teamsters union local that represents corrections officers said the restrictions closed off too many positions to male officers, violating those employees’ civil rights. The union sued to challenge about 60 of the female-only positions.

The union argued the restrictions were too broad for dealing with sexual assault that was concentrated in minimum-security units and during graveyard shifts staffed by a single guard. And it noted that women can be abusers, too, while many men are not.

“The Department relies on outdated and heterosexist stereotypes of men and women to imply that men inherently lack the necessary qualification because they seek to abuse women,” the union wrote in a legal brief.

But the appeals court said the restrictions were valid to protect safety and privacy. The Corrections Department took a reasoned and well-researched approach after ruling out other possible courses of action, judges decided.

Judges said the agency provided enough justification for its decision that only women should be allowed to do things like conduct non-emergency searches and pat-downs or supervise inmates when they might not be fully dressed.

The ruling could be appealed; a Teamsters spokesman said the union is reviewing its options and it’s “unfortunate” the court didn’t recognize the harm the policy has caused to both female and male officers. (The union has argued, for example, that while male officers have been denied overtime opportunity, female officers have had to cover more mandatory overtime.)

The Purdy prison today has a staff of 101 male corrections officers and 116 female officers, with 84 positions reserved solely for women.

Columbia Legal Services, representing the inmates who settled with the state, has monitored the state’s work to address assault.

“I believe that DOC has improved significantly the systems that can lead to prevention of sexual assault for women in their prisons,” Melissa Lee, a coordinating attorney for Columbia Legal Services, said Wednesday. “However, I don’t think that we’ve eradicated it. I think this is an issue that continues to go on, and it’s very hard to completely solve.”