VICTORVILLE, Calif. — Makeup, earrings and perfume are off limits. So are smiles.
Even the swing of a ponytail can attract unwanted attention, so women slick their hair back into a style known as the “bureau bun” — as in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
They wear oversized uniforms to hide the faint outlines of their undergarments, or cover themselves from neck to thigh with baggy black windbreakers known as “trash bags,” even on hot summer days on the concrete yards.
For women who work in federal prisons, where they are vastly outnumbered by male colleagues and male inmates, concealing every trace of their femininity is both necessary and, ultimately, futile. “They never even see what you are wearing,” said Octavia Brown, a supervisor in Victorville, Calif., of the inmates she oversees. “They see straight through it.”
Some inmates do not stop at stares. They also grope, threaten and expose themselves. But what is worse, according to testimony, court documents, and interviews with female prison workers, male colleagues can and do encourage such behavior, undermining the authority of female officers and jeopardizing their safety. Other male employees join in the harassment themselves.
And while women who report harassment face retaliation, professional sabotage and even termination, a New York Times examination found, the careers of many harassers and those who protect them flourish.
When an inmate thrust his penis against Jessica Hodak, at the time a secretary in California, and threatened to rape her, she wanted to discipline him. But her manager pressured her to let it go, she said in a lawsuit. When an inmate groped a guard named Melinda Jenkins, she was ordered to play down the episode, according to a pending complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When she refused, the complaint says, managers made her submit to an unwanted medical examination that involved exposing her breasts to a colleague.
In one extreme instance, Wynona Mixon, a case manager who reported being raped by an inmate in a Tucson prison, suddenly found herself facing incarceration: She was criminally charged with raping her attacker.
Some high ranking officers who harassed women faced few repercussions. The same was true for their supervisors. The accused were often transferred to other prisons and given promotions, only to be reported for harassment again. And so the cycle continued.
The Bureau of Prisons’ sexual harassment problem came to light years before the moment of reckoning known as #MeToo. In 2010, the E.E.O.C. issued a damning report, saying that the bureau systematically mishandled harassment claims and that retaliation there was “unusually high” compared with other federal agencies.
The bureau today has more than 10,000 female employees, but women say little has changed for those who dare to speak up. “Once you go through it, you’re pretty much blackballed from the government,” said Quantina Ponder, a correctional officer in Miami whose harassment complaint against a high-ranking officer was upheld in 2015. “I know if it’s any kind of promotion or anything that I work hard for, I’ll probably never get it because of my situation.”
In May 2017, the House Oversight Committee opened an investigation into the agency, writing that despite continuous allegations of sexual misconduct, “the BOP continued to award bonuses to top administrators.”
Prison officials declined requests for interviews. In an emailed statement, the agency said it would not discuss individual cases, but “allegations of misconduct are taken seriously” and may be referred to the Office of Internal Affairs or the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General for investigation.
“We are committed to ensuring a safe workplace that is free of discrimination and harassment and dedicated to the principles of equal employment opportunity,” the agency said.
In 2017, the Bureau of Prisons agreed to pay $20 million to female employees at the Coleman prison complex in Sumter County, Fla., more money to each plaintiff than any other Title VII gender discrimination settlement of the past decade. A judge found that, among other problems, managers had routinely ignored complaints about masturbation by inmates in front of female employees, known in prison slang as “gunning.” Women at Coleman had learned to avoid areas known as “gun ranges.”
One of the more than 135 women who provided testimony said it happened in the hallway, the shower and the activity room. “I probably saw 25 to 30 inmates masturbating during this one shift,” she said. Another affidavit described two female officers left alone with 70 inmates, several of whom took out their penises. When the women called for backup, no one came.
“It was the most humiliating and embarrassing incident I had ever been through in my life,” one of the women said. “I was terrified.”
When the women at Coleman tried to discipline inmates, according to case documents, male senior officers mocked them. They fed the disciplinary citations into the shredder and cut the inmates’ punishments short.
Managers who foster abusive behavior are not unique to Coleman. In her first year as a secretary at the federal prison in Victorville, Calif., Sandra Carpenter asked to be released from the solitary confinement ward after going there on an errand, but she says the senior officer in control of the door refused, leaving her locked in a long hallway lined with cells.
The inmates had started to masturbate, she recalled the officer saying, and he wanted them to finish so they would behave during lunchtime. Inmates in solitary are known to protest by throwing feces and other bodily fluids through their meal delivery slots.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my God,’” Ms. Carpenter said. “I didn’t even want to turn around because I knew they probably had their faces pressed up against the window, trying to see as much of me as they could.”
That was 10 years ago. Now, a lawsuit similar to the one in Florida claims that officers in Victorville used “gunning” as a reward for good behavior, moving favored inmates into “observation cells” where they had a better view of female staff members and could more easily expose themselves. On Friday, lawyers said a tentative settlement had been reached in the case but the terms were confidential because they had not yet been approved by a judge.
According to depositions, male officers gave the inmates empty milk cartons for their semen and referred to the practice as “me time.”
Sandra Carpenter is among the women who work in federal prisons that try to conceal every trace of their femininity.
Boredom and Danger
Prison employees walk into work each day through a sally port, an electronically controlled chamber with one door that slides to lock behind them before a second one opens onto prison grounds.
“It’s a very eerie feeling the first couple times you do it,” said Sandra Parr, a kitchen supervisor at a prison in Rochester, Minn. “Knowing that you’re purposely walking into an area with people who want to harm you, with nothing but time to think about how to hurt you, manipulate you, try to kill you.”
Unlike the way they are portrayed on television, most federal inmates roam freely and outnumber guards by multiples of 10. Employees work 12-hour shifts made up of long, tedious stretches punctuated by unpredictable flashes of mortal danger. There are hundreds of attacks against guards and other inmates each month. The alternating boredom and intense stress have given rise to a hypersexual culture that can serve as a distraction or a way to blow off steam.
Many women say that their isolation begins on Day 1, when new hires are labeled “fresh meat.” Their cellphones and social media accounts fill up with unwanted advances from colleagues, who openly take bets on who will sleep with them first.
“Every single day something happened, whether it was an inmate jerking off to you, whether it was an inmate pushing you, whether it was a staff member harassing you through email, on a phone, following you to your car,” said Jessica Hodak, who started working at the prison in Victorville 11 years ago when she was 25.
But particularly in rural areas, where many prisons are, a job at the bureau may offer the only steady paycheck around. “It was exhausting. I hated coming to work. I wanted to quit, but of course I’m a single mom with a young baby,” Ms. Hodak said. “I needed a job.”
The Bureau of Prisons oversees 122 prisons with more than 180,000 inmates. Few women worked there until the 1970s, when a series of legal decisions and social changes led the agency to allow them equal access to jobs. Over time, women have grown to make up a third of the agency’s work force, holding jobs from secretary to regional director, overseeing an inmate population that is 93 percent male. But there is a feeling that they have never fully been accepted as equals.
“It’s a male-dominated world. It’s a chauvinistic world,” said Joey Rojas, a prison union organizer who helped bring the Coleman lawsuit, adding that men who support female colleagues can be overshadowed by those who do not.
A lot of men think women “don’t belong in prison because they’re the weaker sex, so we’re going to have to come to their defense,” he said.
Elvin Garcia, who served five years in federal prison on drug-related charges and now works as a re-entry advocate, said he often saw male officers undermine the authority of their female colleagues. “I think their mentality and ideology, they would always look down at them.” He added, “When there’s an emergency or riot, I don’t think they feel comfortable having a female as their backup.”
In 2015, five years after its report, the E.E.O.C. said the Bureau of Prisons had fixed the problem. The agency had created an anti-harassment policy, made E.E.O.C. counselors more independent and formalized the process used to vet employees for promotion. The old system, the commission had found, tended to overlook harassment accusations against employees and label those who filed complaints as “troublemakers.”
“No further updates will be required,” the E.E.O.C. wrote in what it called a “closing letter.”
For Wrongdoers, Promotions
Two years later, an E.E.O.C. counselor — a Bureau of Prisons employee — warned Audrey Pennington that reporting Jeff Rockhold, a senior officer, for making sexual comments and propositions could “leave a stain” on her career, according to Ms. Pennington and a union representative who witnessed the conversation.
Ms. Pennington, a correctional officer, had already reported him internally, and though her complaint was upheld, managers had refused to separate her from Mr. Rockhold at work.
She turned to the E.E.O.C. for help. But the E.E.O.C. has no power to force the Bureau of Prisons to punish employees. Instead, it typically negotiates settlements that can involve payouts, leading some to question the motives of those who file complaints. Ms. Pennington had heard colleagues joke about women looking for a “single mom payday.”
Finally, managers agreed to keep them apart. But Ms. Pennington says they disrupted her schedule, not his, making it seem to colleagues as if she had done something wrong.
Reached by phone, Mr. Rockhold described his relationship with Ms. Pennington as a mutual flirtation. “This was a two-way conversation,” he said. “It wasn’t one-sided like she is presenting.”
Some employees say they are caught in a system where the cost of challenging sexual misconduct is high, while those who commit or enable harassment thrive. Even the $20 million settlement at the Coleman prison complex in Florida did not stop the rise of managers there.
Roy Cheatham, who oversaw guards at Coleman, was promoted to warden at another prison, where he was found to have helped protect a lieutenant on his staff from sexual harassment complaints. An arbitrator called the lieutenant a “sexual predator” and the cover-up a “total miscarriage of justice.” Mr. Cheatham, who did not respond to attempts to reach him, then returned to Coleman with a promotion to the highest position there, running the prison complex.
During his earlier time at Coleman, Mr. Cheatham had overseen Louis Williams, who according to the lawsuit had significantly reduced the punishments inmates received for “gunning.” After the settlement, Mr. Williams was promoted and moved to Wisconsin where, as warden, he was accused of harassment or retaliation by four subordinates. One case was deemed unsubstantiated and the rest are pending. He is now a warden in California and did not respond to attempts to contact him.
Two of the complaints were from supervisors who said that when they tried to protect their staff members, Mr. Williams responded with intimidation, threats and bullying. One, Norman Perkins, took a demotion to escape. Another, who asked not to be named for fear of further retaliation, said she has been permanently shunned.
“Nobody will vouch for me. I’m not trusted with anything,” she said. “They think, ‘If you weren’t here we’d have a man in your place.’”
Accused of Raping an Inmate
Over 21 years at the Bureau of Prisons, Wynona Mixon stood out. She wore makeup, styled her tight curls to frame her face and let her warm smile peek out in response to good news from the inmates she oversaw as a case manager, like an upcoming release or the birth of a child.
“I portrayed positivity to the inmates, portrayed that they could do better,” she said. “I felt good about helping.”
Her attitude made her suspect to some of her colleagues at the high security penitentiary in Tucson. While she thought of herself as a kind of den mother, they labeled her an “inmate lover,” a common insult used by prison workers to suggest that a colleague has been compromised, either by smuggling in contraband or having sex with inmates.
“I was different and they hated it,” Ms. Mixon, 54, said.
In August 2011, she said, an inmate named Christopher Goins raped her at knife point inside a staff bathroom. Mr. Goins had been incarcerated for raping his cousin. Before that, he had served time for attempting to murder a female defense lawyer outside a courthouse by slitting her throat.
Ms. Mixon, like other victims of sexual assault in this article, agreed to be identified by name. She reported the episode immediately and was sent to the hospital. She went on disability leave because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Three years later, she was driving in her neighborhood when the police pulled her over and arrested her. She was charged with raping Mr. Goins.
Prosecutors were using a federal law that says that inmates cannot legally consent to sex while in custody. The law was written to protect inmates from rape by guards or fellow inmates who could later claim that the sex had been consensual. In Ms. Mixon’s case, the Justice Department used the law to blame her for her own assault.
Female correctional officers are found guilty of sexual misconduct with inmates at higher rates than their male counterparts, which according to some prison employees adds to the belief that women do not belong. But experts say the disparity is the result of an opportunity gap — nine in 10 federal inmates are male, and most reported incidents are heterosexual in nature — as well as a general lack of support for female employees that makes men more likely to report incidents in which women are at fault.
While Ms. Mixon’s experience was severe, many women who report harassment say they face blatant retaliation. One officer, Sheila Pugh, was offered a settlement after she reported that an internal affairs investigator, Steven Brown, had verbally abused her for months, once locking her inside an office with him while she banged on the door to be let out. Mr. Brown disputes her account and says her complaint was not sustained in an internal review.
On the day Ms. Pugh went to sign the settlement papers, she learned she was being fired. The bureau said she had failed to disclose a piece of her employment history on her job application six years before.
It took two-and-a-half years to appeal. She was reinstated with back pay.
The rape case against Wynona Mixon dragged on for two years. She had night terrors and became like a “walking zombie” during the day, according to her family and her doctor, rarely showing the warm smile she had once been known for. She drained her bank accounts and her home went into foreclosure. Her PTSD worsened, medical records show, until she felt she wanted to die.
Mr. Goins testified that the sex had been consensual, but a jury acquitted Ms. Mixon of all charges. Soon after, her mother fell ill and died, which the family attributes to stress from the ordeal. Ms. Mixon is still unable to work.
Rosa Goldensohn contributed reporting FROM NEW York. Doris Burke contributed research.