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Allegheny County Jail warden accused of turning blind eye to sexual harassment at D.C. jail | TribLIVE.com
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Allegheny County Jail warden accused of turning blind eye to sexual harassment at D.C. jail

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Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Sept. 23, 2014.

Three women who worked for Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper at a Washington jail accused him of failing to take action when they reported sexual harassment by other colleagues, according to a federal lawsuit filed in 2013.

Harper, hired as warden of Allegheny County Jail in 2012, was deputy warden of operations at the District of Columbia Department of Corrections when the women said they asked him to do something about their colleagues and supervisors asking to touch their breasts and smacking their butts.

The lawsuit also names Simon Wainwright, who worked at the Allegheny County jail under Harper for more than four years and was warden at the Washington jail when the alleged sexual harassment incidents took place.

Wainwright disputed the women’s claims and said both he and Harper took each complaint of sexual harassment seriously. Harper declined to comment Thursday when asked about the lawsuit.

“Every time a complaint was made to me, they were always referred to … the third party investigator,” said Wainwright, who was recently named warden of a state prison in Baltimore. “Without questions, it was always done.”

Harper has been the target of criticism over safety protocols at the jail. Harper’s policies, including mandatory overtime for guards, put inmates and guards in jeopardy, critics say. Under Harper’s leadership, the Allegheny County Jail is violating a federal law intended to reduce sexual harassment and assault in jails, the Trib reported in June. Two former guards at the Allegheny County jail said they have concerns about Harper, including his alleged lack of action against sexual harassment at his previous post in Washington.

“I don’t know how he got that job,” said Gayle Sappie, a former Allegheny County Jail guard who participated in a protest Thursday to bring attention to the issue. “How could he ever have been qualified for that job? If he did these things down there, how the heck did he ever get a job up here?”

“I feel that we don’t have that many sexual abuse cases and misconducts at our jail,” Harper told the Trib in an interview for that June investigation. “I feel we have a tight lid on that, so I didn’t feel that was important right now.”

Harper was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. His name was mentioned eight times in the original, 55-page complaint filed in November 2013.

According to claims in the lawsuit, Harper did not separate the women from working with their harassers and he was one of several officials who retaliated against one woman who rejected the sexual advances of her boss.

Two women also brought their harassment complaints to Wainwright, who was then warden of the Washington jail, according to the lawsuit. Wainwright was hired as a deputy warden of the Allegheny County Jail in November 2013. He left in March.

Wainwright was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but his appears in the complaint three times.

Wainwright said every time a claim of sexual harassment or assault was brought to him at any jail where he worked, he took it seriously and followed the proper steps. He said Harper is the same way. When the lawsuit was filed, both Wainwright and Harper were in Pittsburgh. They had a conversation about it, Wainwright said.

“He made the same statements that no one had brought any of this (harassment) to his attention either,” Wainwright said of Harper. “That was easy for me to believe because no one had brought it to my attention.”

Wainwright said he left the Washington jail because a new mayor who took office in 2012 terminated many jail officials. He left Pittsburgh because he wanted to return to his home state of Maryland, he said.

Six former employees of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections filed the lawsuit Nov. 7, 2013, against the District of Columbia; Thomas Faust, former director of the D.C. Department of Corrections; and Joseph Pettiford, former major and deputy warden for the D.C. DOC.

The District paid settlements to the six plaintiffs, said Dennis Corkery, an attorney representing four of the women in the case, which closed last year. After their cases were settled, all plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their claims, Corkery said.

“They’re not going to settle for something unless there’s some smoke there,” said Sappie, who retired from the Allegheny County Jail in 2014.

Cindy Debold, who retired as an Allegheny County Jail guard last year, said all the jail employees knew about the Washington lawsuit as soon as Harper was hired, and many were concerned.

The lawsuit included allegations of inaction against Harper from three women, Ja’net Sheen, Michelle Murray and Takia Wilson.

Sheen, a former corrections officer at the Washington jail, claimed she was sexually harassed by Pettiford from 2007 through 2009, the lawsuit alleged. Pettiford allegedly made comments to Sheen like, “It’s just a matter of time. You’re going to give me some.”

When Sheen reported the harassment to Harper, she claimed, he said he would look into it but never followed up. An investigator never contacted Sheen, according to the lawsuit.

Facing retaliation by jail officials, Sheen resigned and later reapplied, the lawsuit claimed. Her application was rejected, Sheen said. When she asked why, Harper told her, “If you had taken care of the right people and done the right things, maybe you would have been back,” according to the lawsuit.

Murray, a plaintiff in the case, claimed that when she rejected Pettiford’s sexual advances, which included asking her to show him her breasts, Murray suffered retaliation from jail officials.

Jail officials had allowed Murray to skip the morning roll call each year from 2008 through 2011 so she could take her child to school. In 2011, after she rejected Pettiford’s advances, jail officials denied her request to skip roll call, the lawsuit alleged. Harper and Wainwright, two of the officials who denied her request, had approved it in prior years, according to the lawsuit.

Wainwright said he did not recall Murray’s request.

Wilson, a case manager at the jail, claimed that in 2012, a sergeant slapped her butt. The sergeant had previously pinched Wilson on the breast, accoding to the lawsuit.

Wilson claimed she reported the incidents to her supervisor, who notified Harper, the lawsuit alleged. Wilson and her supervisor met with Harper, but the sergeant did not attend even though she was supposed to. Wilson signed a cease-and-desist order when Harper prompted her, but Wilson does not believe the sergeant ever signed it because Wilson continued to work in the same area with the sergeant, the lawsuit stated. Wilson claimed that Harper did not inform her of any other avenues for pursuing a claim, according to the lawsuit.

Harper’s employment at Washington’s DOC ended in August 2012, a spokeswoman said. He became Allegheny County Jail warden in October 2012, hired by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who declined to comment for this story through his spokeswoman, Amie Downs.

Women who were once inmates at the Allegheny County Jail have raised concerns about the lack of protection there against sexual assault and harassment, the Trib investigation found.

The Allegheny County Jail’s surveillance camera system has several blind spots, including the cells where three women said they were sexually assaulted by a former guard in 2015 — a violation of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. The jail has allowed more than two years to elapse since a deadline for an audit to prove the jail follows the rest of the act’s standards.

After he was contacted by the Trib in April, Harper secured funding from the county for the cameras, but they have not been installed, he said Thursday during a Jail Oversight Board meeting. He does not plan to have the audit done until 2020, he said. If it’s after Aug. 19, 2020, the jail will have missed the federal deadline for a second time.

Read more local news happening in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Theresa at 412-380-5669, tclift@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tclift.

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