$20 million to be paid to women claiming sexual harassment, cover-up at Florida prison

Justice Department settles lawsuit filed by hundreds of female prison employees

WILDWOOD, Fla. — More than 500 female employees at Coleman Federal Prison on the Lake-Sumter County line have won a multimillion-dollar settlement in a class-action lawsuit that claimed they were sexually harassed by prisoners and managers.

The suit also alleged they were asked to cover up the incidents.

“It’s just a toxic environment,” union president Joe Rojas said.

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U.S. Bureau of Prisons employee Taronica White said the harassment was constant.

“It happened all the time,” she said. “It wasn’t just a once-a-month situation.”

When employees complained, they were subject to crude comments, gestures and gropings, White said.

“There were plenty of situations where you were subjected to rape threats,” she said. “Inmates would yell rape threats across the compound at you.”

In the lawsuit, employees claimed management swept the incidents under the rug and threw away incident reports.

After years of legal wrangling, the two sides recently came to a settlement, with the Bureau of Prisons agreeing to pay the plaintiffs $20 million.

Attorneys for the women say the payout is the largest class-action sexual harassment recovery in U.S. history.

“We’re very happy with the monetary relief, but there’s no amount of money that could compensate the women for what they’ve been through,” attorney Heidi Burakiewicz said.

The Bureau of Prisons also agreed to make several changes, including easier tracking of complaints, psychological help for inmates with a history of sexual misconduct and a clearer zero-tolerance policy for harassment by inmates.

“I think the changes we suffered for will bring a much better atmosphere,” White said.