Vulgar catcalls, gang rape plots, breast groping, and men standing inches away fondling their exposed genitals. Until recently, that was all in a day’s work for the female employees at Florida’s Coleman prison.
“The inmates would grab themselves and make [obscene] gestures as I walked down the compound,” Taronica White, who began working as a senior correctional officer specialist at the prison in 2005, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “They made sexual comments and sexual threats.”
Tammy Padgett worked her way up from correctional officer to unit manager after she arrived at the prison in 2002, even though the constant harassment over the years left her “always angry and exhausted.”
The harassment and threats had been going on for decades at Coleman — the country’s largest federal correctional complex for men — and endured by hundreds of female guards, nurses, and office workers.
Like many before them, Padgett and White regularly complained to superiors and filed incident reports, but rarely saw proper action taken.
“Some of those reports got shredded,” says White, “and some got lost.”
“The expectation,” says Padgett, “was that as a female, if I worked in a prison I was going to be subjected to that. I had to either suck it up and deal with it, or find a new job.”
For more on Padgett and White’s inspiring story, pick up the newest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
By 2011, White and Padgett were sick of sucking it up.
They filed a class-action sexual harassment lawsuit against the U.S. government’s prison agency and the Department of Justice on behalf of 524 past and present female employees at Coleman, alleging that prison managers repeatedly failed to protect them from sexual harassment and threats from inmates.
This past February, after an arduous six-year battle, the women won a $20 million settlement, one of the largest payouts in a class-action sexual harassment case in U.S. history.
“This victory should send the message that sexual harassment is never acceptable,” says the women’s D.C. attorney, Heidi Burakiewicz. “Not in any workplace, not by any person, not even when the federal government is involved. No employer or person is too big or powerful to get away with sexual harassment.”
Most important to Padgett and White were the new policies put in place at the prison as part of the settlement — additional training for staff and more efficient methods to report harassment, for example.
“The improvements are slow-rolling,” says Padgett, “but we’re going to maintain our fight to see an end to sexual harassment. As women, all we have is our voice and we have to speak out. If we don’t, it’s never going to change.”
Their fight, says White, “was not just for us, but for all the women who come after us.”