Prison nurses who sued get $1-million

Published January 31, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - In the latest lurid revelation about the state prison system, a jury has awarded nearly $1-million in damages to nurses who said a sexually hostile workplace violated their civil rights.

A federal court jury in Panama City reached its verdict Friday, more than six years after nurses at Washington Correctional Institution in Chipley first complained about working conditions there.

The nurses said that while they made their rounds and dispensed medications, male inmates used graphic language and masturbated toward them. The practice was so common it had a name: "gunning."

Nurses at prisons in Lake County and Martin County have filed similar lawsuits, which are pending.

The Department of Corrections declined to respond to questions about the verdict, citing "ongoing litigation." The agency did not say whether it would appeal. The statement noted that the behavior occurred years ago and that Secretary James McDonough "does not condone or tolerate any form of abuse or harassment."

The Chipley inmates were in separate cells in what is called close management custody, isolated from the rest of the population for various reasons, including behavioral problems.

The nurses said they repeatedly filed disciplinary reports against inmates and complained to superiors, to no avail. So they sued the state.

After a weeklong trial before U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak, the jury of four men and four women awarded $990,000 in damages for emotional distress to 12 women nurses.

Individual damages ranged from $37,500 to $97,500, depending on the nurses' term of employment.

"I'm so thankful that the jury believed in us because something had to be done," said nurse Kathleen Rudolph, 54, of Fountain, whose complaints spurred the lawsuit.

Rudolph, a widow who has worked at the Chipley prison for 12 years, said officers discouraged her and other nurses from filing complaints or refused to accept complaints because they were not explicit enough.

"This would happen on a daily basis," Rudolph said.

The nurses' first complaint letter was sent on Oct. 3, 2000, to then-Corrections Secretary Mike Moore, who was hired by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

"We have written many disciplinary reports DRs to no avail and now we are being strongly discouraged from writing any at all," the nurses wrote. "We are to the point where we feel our civil rights are being violated."

Eighteen months later, as the conditions continued, the nurses said, they sued their employer. The nurses and their attorney said the behavior continued after Bush replaced Moore with James Crosby in 2003.

One of the nurses' lawyers, Wes Pittman of Panama City, said prison officials could have taken minimal steps to stop the inmates' behavior, such as accompanying nurses on their cell-to-cell visits or insisting inmates be clothed.

"The gist of our case was that there were easy things (the department) could have done and did not do, and that permitted the inmate conduct to continue," Pittman said.

The Corrections Department changed its rules last year to make the intentional exposing of genitals or masturbating by an inmate subject to 60 days in disciplinary confinement and the loss of 90 days of gain time.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.