It’s been more than seven years since then-Sheriff Michael Hennessey removed all male deputies from female housing units at San Francisco County Jail, saying inmates’ complaints of sexual misconduct – some substantiated, some not – had raised concerns over safety and security.
Next week, a federal appeals court will hear claims of sex discrimination by more than two dozen deputies, male and female, who say the policy has made their jobs harder and was a solution to a nonexistent problem.
Since the change took effect in October 2006, female deputies have been subjected to increased “stress, violence and danger” guarding women who “have a greater propensity for being argumentative, disagreeable, vocal, challenging and more openly hostile than male inmates,” the officers’ lawyers said in written arguments to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
Male deputies, meanwhile, have lost wages and overtime and have been falsely stigmatized as sexual predators because of Hennessey’s decision, the lawyers said. And, they said, in the 16 years before the sheriff instituted his no-men-allowed policy, “there was not one sustained complaint of sexual misconduct by a male deputy against a female inmate.”
Evidence of problems
That’s not true, the city’s lawyers say. Hennessey’s office investigated a dozen complaints of sexual misconduct by male deputies between 2001 and mid-2006, the lawyers said in a court filing. No criminal charges were filed, but three deputies resigned and two others were suspended, they said.
“Cases that resulted in resignation and cases in which discipline was meted out are substantiated allegations,” said Gabriel Zitrin, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
Lawrence Murray, lead attorney for the deputies in the lawsuit, countered that Hennessey, in a sworn deposition, was unable to identify any officers who were punished for sexual misconduct in the jail, where the living quarters, Murray said, are under constant surveillance by supervising officers and video cameras.
The three-judge panel that will hear the case on Wednesday will consider the factual dispute and, perhaps more important, the level of deference that judges should give to the sheriff’s decisions on jail operations.
In a February 2010 ruling upholding Hennessey’s policy, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said gender-based work assignments are “outside modern-day norms” but courts have long required “judicial restraint when assessing the decisions of correctional officials.”
Hennessey, who had been San Francisco’s sheriff since 1980, “reasonably concluded that the policy was necessary to address the security and morale problems associated with staffing male deputies in female housing units,” Illston said. The policy has been continued by current Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, whose office declined to comment on the case.
Earlier in 2006, Hennessey had transferred all female inmates, generally numbering between 50 and 110, from three units of the jail at 425 Seventh St. to a single unit where all cells were visible from a central location.
He said he decided to remove male guards from the unit mainly because reports of sexual misconduct against female inmates in San Francisco and elsewhere – even if not always proved – showed it was a serious problem. Other concerns, Hennessey said, included the privacy of inmates, who changed clothes in the deputies’ view, and the unwillingness of some male officers to search female inmates thoroughly because they feared being accused of groping.
Better training sought
Lawyers for the deputes say none of those reasons justifies the sex discrimination resulting from Hennessey’s policy, and that any fears of sexual misconduct in the open-view women’s quarters could be alleviated with additional surveillance cameras and better staff training.
“There is no opportunity for misconduct to occur or go unnoticed,” the attorneys said in court papers.
The city’s lawyers disagreed.
“Working in the female housing (units) gives ill-intentioned male deputies the opportunity to take female inmates to a storeroom, laundry room or other isolated area of (the jail) for forced or ‘consensual’ sexual activities,” they said.