OCTOBER 30, 2010
Michelle Barfield was prepared for prisoners to harass her when she started her new job as an Arizona Department of Corrections officer at the maximum-security unit in Florence two years ago.
What Barfield did not count on was receiving worse treatment from her co-workers.
A federal jury found the treatment Barfield endured from a group of male co-workers, including vulgar comments about sexual acts and references to her interracial marriage, was unacceptable. The jury awarded her more than $600,000 in U.S. District Court last week.
The court ruling, in which a judge called the behavior of some officers "bestial," ended Barfield's two-year struggle with the Corrections Department. But her time with the state's prison agency is not over. She continues to work for the state agency, now in a different facility, and she hopes that sharing her story will prevent the situation from repeating itself.
Corrections Director Charles Ryan said the agency is taking harassment claims seriously and has implemented an additional training program for supervisors since Barfield's allegations came to light.
"I am disappointed in the reported behavior and the apparent failure by the previous administration to respond to the employee's complaints appropriately," Ryan wrote in a state- ment. "Such behavior will not be tolerated in the Arizona Department of Corrections under my watch."
Barfield said her allegations of harassment were ignored or minimized by supervisors at the prison in Florence, so she remains skeptical about the agency's commitment to dismantling the corrections officers' "boys clubs" that she said dominate some units around the state.
One of the officers accused of harassing Barfield was fired for "inappropriate conduct" and a supervisor received a written reprimand for not addressing Barfield's concerns sooner, but he remains a Corrections Department employee along with the other man involved.
Barfield claims the harassment began almost as soon as she started working in Florence's Central Unit in November 2008, with her co-workers making comments about her looks, her body and her motivations for working in a prison.
"They said, 'No girl wants to work here unless they want to (have sex with) an inmate or another officer,' " Barfield recalled in a recent interview.
At first, Barfield said, she told the other corrections officers not to speak to her that way. Then she tried ignoring it.
Her fellow officers told Barfield that their behavior - like handcuffing Barfield to an inmate's cell and tearing her rotator cuff in an unsolicited wrestling match - were part of an initiation into the unit.
As time went on without her co-workers changing their behavior, Barfield brought the situation to the attention of a commander.
The commander, Sgt. David Wall, initially encouraged her to not file a report "so it wouldn't become a (human-resources) issue," Barfield said.
Wall was later reprimanded by a deputy warden in Florence.
"If you had been more involved with your subordinates the inappropriate behavior would have been dealt with sooner or not happened at all," Deputy Warden Greg Fizer wrote to Wall.
One officer was fired, but the situation hardly improved. Other officers responded by not communicating with her, a danger in that work environment.
Word also got out in the prison yard of Barfield's interracial marriage. Soon, suspected members of a White supremacist prison gang began making remarks about her marriage.
Barfield's attorney wrote a letter to Attorney General Terry Goddard, warning him that the state's unresponsiveness was putting Barfield in a dangerous situation.
While Barfield's treatment at work improved with her transfer to another complex, the apparent indifference the Florence warden maintained on the stand during Barfield's trial left her wondering whether the state's prison system is serious about addressing sexual harassment.
During the trial, Barfield's attorney, Stephen Montoya, questioned Warden Carson McWilliams and went into detail about statements other officers made to Barfield. The statements included explicit comments from other officers wanting to subject her to sexual acts.
McWilliams said the statements were certainly inappropriate. But he maintained that they stopped short of harassment because there were no "other factors" involved, such as a supervisor making those statements to a subordinate.
"One of the things we certainly teach our staff to do and train our staff to do is speak up when those things happen, and we will deal with them," McWilliams testified. "That's part of what led to this, is the facts about speaking up and speaking up immediately to do things."
Barfield and her attorney say her attempts to speak up were ignored and there was little or no immediacy in the department's response to her complaints.
U.S. District Judge Frederick Martone agreed, writing that the state's response "goes far beyond negligence."
"I mean, it's almost worse that they didn't know what kinds of conditions were prevailing in Cell Block 4 than if they did know and didn't do anything," Martone wrote. "It's just scandalous."