DOC ordered to pay $630,000 to Martin prison employees

 FORT PIERCE — An eight-member federal jury has ordered the Florida Department of Corrections to pay $630,000 to 14 former employees at a Martin County prison who say prison officials were negligent in curbing lewd behavior directed at them from prison inmates.

The women, a classification officer and 13 nurses at the Martin Correctional Institution north of Indiantown, were originally part of a statewide group of former prison employees who filed suit against the state prison system.

They all claimed that inmates housed in the close management units, which are essentially prisons within the prisons, would routinely perform lewd acts in front of them and shout obscenities at them.

Prison guards, they say, would either laugh or ignore the behavior, and for years their complaints went unheard.

“Nursing is supposed to be one of the last noble professions, and to have that happen to us, it’s just unspeakable,” said Paula LaCroix-Cutlip, one of the plaintiffs. “I think we all feel vindicated. We’re glad that the jury listened, and we hope the department’s eyes are opened now.

The amount the jury awarded works out to $45,000 in damages for each victim, a big step from the settlement amount that was proposed by the department before the trial began.

Had they agreed to the settlement offer, the women would have each received about $13,000 each. Wes Pittman, an attorney for the women, said the department had offered as little as $1,300 to individual plaintiffs.

Jurors began deliberations Monday afternoon and resumed Tuesday, when the eight-member all male panel returned the verdict. The decision capped off the trial which began April 30.

Janet Smith, one of the plaintiffs who worked for more than 10 years for the department and was a classification officer at Martin Correctional, said she had hoped her career within the department would take her to a position in the victim’s assistance program within the prison.

But one day, as she was interviewing an inmate and noticed two other inmates in nearby cells looking at her and performing sex acts while trying to get her attention, she decided she had enough.

“I told the inmate I was interviewing that the interview was over, and I went to write my resignation,” Smith said.

The employees said the behavior started to become rampant in the mid-1990s, when the prison added inmates to the unit but failed to add adequate staff to guard it. It continued until 2002, they said, when the close management inmates were shipped to other prisons.

Department of Corrections attorneys had tried unsuccessfully to argue that the nurses had left because they were disgruntled with the fact that a new agency hired to provide health care to the prison was planning to cut their pay and benefits. Department attorneys declined comment on the verdict.

Pittman said he represented former prison employees in two similar Florida cases and won those as well, including a case last year where jurors awarded a group of 13 former employees between $37,500 and $97,500 each.

Pittman said he is planning to file new lawsuits on behalf of about 90 prison employees from Martin, Charlotte and Everglades Correctional Institutions. On Tuesday he appealed to Gov. Charlie Crist.

“I think it’s really time for the governor to take a look at this situation and intervene if necessary,” Pittman said. “These employees cannot continue to endure what they have had to endure.”

Smith now works in customer service for a government agency. She said she lost her retirement benefits by leaving the department along with her career aspirations, but said her disillusionment with the department makes her doubtful she would ever work there again.

She and the other women say they still all have nightmares about their time in the prison.

LaCroix-Cutlip, who now works as a traveling nurse, said the verdict and the $45,000 helps close the door on the memories, but she doubts they will ever go away completely.

“We got abandoned in places where no one should ever be abandoned,” she said. “It was worse than I could have ever imagined. I don’t think there’s anything, I don’t think there’s ever been a Hollywood movie made, that has captured how truly bad it was.”

source: http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/content/tcoast/epaper/2008/05/13/0513mcisex.html?cxtype=rss&cxsvc=7&cxcat=77

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