Crime & punishment

Inside prison walls, women corrections officers face threat from their own

A screen shot from the documentary "Code of Silence" showing a woman prison officer at work. (New York Times)

“You can never know when an inmate’s got a shank and they’re just gonna walk up behind you and stick it right in your back,” says Colleen Payton in the short documentary film Code of Silence of the hazards of being a corrections worker. Payton, an officer at the Little Sandy Correctional Complex in Kentucky added, “If you walk out in the evening … it’s like, ‘phew … one more safe day.'” However, the inmates within the walls of Little Sandy were hardly the only threat to Payton and some of her fellow women colleagues. Payton, Lisa Suliman and Linda Smith all say they were sexually assaulted while on the job at Little Sandy by their supervisor, Sergeant Stephen Harper. In the film, directed and produced by George Steptoe and Scilla Alecci, they recount the assaults in graphic detail and explain why, at first, they stayed silent and didn’t come forward with accusations. “I never once mentioned anything about the sexual harassment,” Smith says in the film, fighting back tears, “because I didn’t want to be humiliated with my co-workers. [I] didn’t want to lose my job … my family.”

In May 2013, the trio decided to lodge formal accusations against Harper, who had been commended multiple times for his performance on the job. The prison’s warden assigned a human resources worker, a woman, with virtually no experience to investigate the case. She found the claims to be unsubstantiated and dismissed the case because two of the accusers had declined to put their allegations in writing. “We’re not trained to be sexually assaulted by our co-workers … especially our supervisors,” Suliman says of the outcome. A year later, Donna Adkins, another corrections officer, came forward with claims against Harper as well, which resulted in Harper giving a video deposition in August of last year.

Watch the full documentary at The New York Times.

Related:

Meet the former lawyer and inmate fighting for America’s incarcerated women

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