Jennifer Dennis came from a family of correctional officers, and, as a single mom, she was grateful for her good-paying job at Little Sandy Correctional Complex in rural northeastern Kentucky.
But then her supervisor took an interest in her — and she said her dream job quickly became a nightmare.
“At first, it was like rubbing my butt, or trying to grab my boobs, or trying to pinch my tail,” she said.
But then, she said, Sgt. Stephen Harper began to get more aggressive. Once, he barged through the door as she was exiting a staff bathroom.
“That’s when he pressed me up against the wall and was trying to get his hands down the top of my shirt and down my pants,” she said. “He knew he scared me that time, because I cried a little bit and I screamed at him.”
In 2014, Dennis and three other correctional officers sued Harper and the Kentucky Department of Corrections. They accused Harper of repeatedly sexually harassing and assaulting them and other women for years at Little Sandy Correctional Complex. The lawsuit also claims prison leaders failed to respond to these complaints, “creating a culture of indifference” around sexual harassment.
In court documents, the Department of Corrections argued it responded by “promptly investigating complaints and taking appropriate action.”
But these women aren’t alone. Through an open records request, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting obtained more than 3,500 pages of sexual harassment complaints filed by employees of Kentucky’s Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice in the last six years.
That is nearly as many complaints as all other Kentucky state agencies combined.
“Prison is this very gendered environment,” said Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “It’s extremely sexualized.”
Smith studies the intersections of gender, crime and sexuality. She said prisons are a unique work environment — they’re closed, insular and have long been male-dominated. “It’s in many ways the Las Vegas rule,” she said. “What happens here stays here. If there’s some discipline to be done, we do it internally.”
But when that system doesn’t work, the alternative is sometimes the legal system. In the last year alone, there have been employee-on-employee sexual harassment settlements against prison systems in Missouri, Arizona, Wisconsin and other states.
In Kentucky, Stephen Harper settled with the four women out of court in 2015. Last year, a jury ordered the state to pay the women $1.6 million. The state is appealing the decision. Reached by phone, Harper declined to comment for this story.
Despite the ruling and settlement, none of the sexual harassment complaints filed against Stephen Harper were substantiated. Only about a third of all employee complaints filed with the Kentucky Department of Corrections were substantiated as sexual harassment over the last six years.
Colleen Payton, another woman on the lawsuit, alleged that Harper exposed himself, tried to kiss her and cornered her in the bathroom. When she filed a complaint, the prison’s HR administrator wrote that Harper was “falsely accused.”
“It was a slap in the face,” she said. “It made me feel like they didn’t believe me, that they were calling me a liar.”
The department wouldn’t address why so few complaints were deemed valid. But in a statement, Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley said his agency has worked to change the culture around sexual harassment over the last two years. He pointed to increased training and hiring additional investigators as examples of that change.
Governor Matt Bevin didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story. But late last year, amid a state lawmaker sexual harassment scandal, Bevin was interviewed on a local news radio program known as the Leland Conway show.
Addressing sexual harassment generally, he said, “How do you get rid of it? You don’t tolerate it, and when brought forward, you don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You remove the hypocrisy. That’s what you do.”
It’s been more than a year since the jury ruled against the Kentucky Department of Corrections and six years since the complaints in this lawsuit first surfaced against Sergeant Stephen Harper.
But the Department of Corrections has not removed him from his supervisory role.