Court Upholds Same-Sex Supervision Policy In Corrections Facility

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department requires that all female inmates be placed in female-only housing units, or “pods.” In October 2006, the Sheriff implemented a policy requiring that only female deputies be assigned to staff these female pods.

A group of male and female deputies brought a federal court lawsuit, alleging that the Sheriff’s staffing policy amounted to illegal gender discrimination. A federal court rejected the claim, finding that the Sheriff had stated a legitimate business necessity for the rule.

Among other things, the Court found that “the policy was implemented to prevent sexual misconduct and other inappropriate relationships between male deputies and female inmates. The Sheriff’s Department investigated 12 complaints of sexual misconduct between 2001 and 2006, four of which occurred in 2005, the year before the policy was implemented. The allegations included all levels of misconduct, from inappropriate conversation to sexual intercourse. Some of these allegations were ultimately not sustained, others resulted in the deputy receiving discipline, and some resulted in the deputy resigning. In one case, the Sheriff referred the complaint to the District Attorney for prosecution. In addition, within the same time period, female inmates filed two federal lawsuits alleging civil rights violations as a result of sexual abuse by male deputies.”

The Court also held that the policy was a legitimate attempt “to address security and morale problems created by the atmosphere of misconduct allegations. Male deputies have been reluctant to supervise female inmates closely due to a fear of false misconduct allegations, creating opportunities for smuggling and use of contraband, and leading to morale problems due to female deputy partners of these male deputies feeling overburdened.”

The Court also cited the fact that “the policy was designed to protect the privacy interests of female inmates. The parties agree that the female pods are equipped with privacy screens that partially cover an inmate while she is showering or using the toilet. However, San Francisco presents evidence that female inmates must change clothes twice a day in their sleeping areas, in plain view of deputies. Although inmates’ privacy rights are reduced, a person’s interest in not being viewed unclothed by members of the opposite sex survives incarceration. The corrections officers do not attempt to controvert this evidence. In the Court’s view, defendant has shown that legitimate privacy concerns remain; these concerns plainly relate to the essence of defendant’s business.”

The Court concluded that the policy was “reasonably necessary to ensure the normal operation of the jails. San Francisco has shown that no feasible, non-discriminatory alternatives could have furthered its objectives.”

The corrections officers argued that the Sheriff could have increased deputies’ training regarding sexual misconduct, installed rotating cameras to provide more coverage of the female pod areas, and “improved security by installing adequate hardware for lock up and slots on doors for safety.” The Court rejected all three arguments, commenting: “First, with respect to cameras, the officers’ suggestion ignores a fact the officers themselves have previously stressed – that instances of sexual misconduct tend to take place outside the pods, for example in storage areas. Cameras that sweep the pods would not address the problem of sexual abuse. In addition, cameras could not solve the problems related to privacy, contraband detection, morale, and rehabilitation. Second, with respect to other security hardware, the officers’ suggestions that the Sheriff bulk up cell doors and install inmate restraints seem to bear no relation to the security risks identified by defendant. The officers’ training suggestion is similarly unpersuasive. The Sheriff has stated that, in his view, additional training would not eliminate sexual abuse by male deputies. In the Court’s view, this conclusion is both well-reasoned and consistent with common sense.”

Ambat v. City and County of San Francisco, 2010 WL 598417 (N.D. Cal. 2010).

This article appears in the April 2010 issue