‘We’re completely vulnerable.’ The issues pregnant prison guards have to deal with
Correctional officer Sarah Coogle was seven months pregnant in the summer of 2017 when an alarm sounded during her shift at a California state prison in Tehachapi.
Coogle ran toward the ringing and fell. She felt pain in her abdomen immediately. Two months later, in her 38th week of pregnancy, her baby was still-born.
She believes she wouldn’t have lost the baby had the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provided her the same accommodations the federal Bureau of Prisons and other state and local law enforcement agencies routinely provide pregnant women, including letting them transfer temporarily to positions with lighter workloads without losing seniority.
“I would have taken that position, I never would have been running, I never would have fallen and I never would have lost my baby,” Coogle said.
California state correctional officers who become pregnant face a difficult choice, according to a newly filed class action lawsuit. They can keep working and risk their babies’ health, take a leave of absence and lose pay or switch to a different position and risk losing their peace officer certification, which can compromise their future in public safety.
That policy is fairly new. The Department of Corrections had a policy accommodating pregnant women until 2015, when the department quietly got rid of it for reasons that it has refused to explain.
“We’re not aware of any other major law enforcement agency that has this kind of policy,” said Arnold Peter, of Peter Law Group, the firm representing six female correctional officers who announced their suit March 26.
‘These are men’s jobs’
The case in Los Angeles County Superior Court is the third lawsuit filed over the policy change. Coogle sued the department and so did former correctional officer Amanda Van Fleet, who said she was denied accommodations at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo following a hepatitis C scare when she stuck her finger on something sharp in an inmate’s jacket.
California’s own Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which enforces workplace discrimination laws, joined Van Fleet’s lawsuit, seeking a return to the pre-2015 policy. The Department of Corrections is fighting the two women’s lawsuits in Kern and San Luis Obispo county superior courts.
“We do not comment on pending litigation,” CDCR spokeswoman Vicky Waters said in an email. “CDCR has and believes in strong nondiscrimination policies, including policy to ensure that reasonable accommodations are provided where appropriate.”
The three lawsuits argue the department’s refusal to accommodate pregnant employees with modified assignments violates state and federal workplace protections for women.
The Kern County Superior Court issued an injunction in Coogle’s suit that suspended CDCR’s policy for her during pregnancy, but not for other CDCR employees. CDCR settled with Van Fleet, but the Department of Fair Employment and Housing is still pursuing a policy change related to her case.
In court filings so far, CDCR doesn’t discuss its reasons for changing the policy in 2015.
The change does not appear to stem from concerns about staffing shortages. A 2016 corrections report noted the state’s inspector general had determined the department was in 100 percent adherence with staffing requirements. A Legislative Analyst’s Office report from 2018 said the department had no trouble recruiting or retaining staff.
“This is a not-so-subtle way of telling women, ‘these are men’s jobs,’” said Katherine Spillar, executive director of Los Angeles-based Feminist Majority Foundation, a nonprofit that studies women in law enforcement. “And if they’re going to take a man’s job, they’re going to be treated like a man.”
Fewer women working in state prisons
Women made up just below 15 percent of CDCR’s workforce of about 23,000 correctional officers as of 2017, according to the latest CalHR data. That’s down from about 20 percent in 2009, according to the data.
Angela Powell, 32, a correctional officer at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, said she asked in summer 2017 to swap her gear belt for a vest to shift weight from her pregnant belly. Holding keys, handcuffs, pepper spray, a flashlight, a baton and other gear, the belts can weigh 15 to 20 pounds.
Powell said she waited seven weeks for a response, when she was told she would have to submit more paperwork. Around the same time, she was finishing an eight-hour shift when a superior told her she would have to work another six hours of overtime patrolling a unit with three tiers of stairs.
She said she went home and contacted her doctor, who wrote a note regarding her condition that she presented the next day asking for a reprieve from mandatory overtime.
“When I turned that in, I was basically laughed at and told that wasn’t going to happen,” she said.
She took leave for the rest of her pregnancy. She said when she returned to work after giving birth to her son, she was told 10 percent of her pay would be withheld for a year for insubordination over refusing the shift. The prison eventually dropped that adverse action, she said.
“We would like the policy to be changed back so women can continue working and grow their family at the same time,” Powell said.
A choice between ‘your job and the life of your unborn child’
Melissa Glaude, 37, a medical technical assistant at the Vacaville prison and a plaintiff in the new suit, had her first child in 2017. At that time, Glaude said, her job classification fell under the Department of State Hospitals.
Her supervisors accommodated her starting at nine weeks, when the department moved her to an office tech position. She said she worked until her 36th week of pregnancy without problems.
Then the job was reclassified under CDCR. She became pregnant again last October. She said the department offered some accommodations, exempting her from overtime, but even that didn’t last.
She said she received an email during that time noting she would be responsible for responding to an inmate emergency if an alarm sounded. She started taking leave at 25 weeks pregnant.
“As a mother you’re being forced to choose between your job and the life of your unborn child,” she said. “It’s a choice you have to make but you don’t really have any other choice. I’m not willing to put my child in harm’s way for the sake of anything, really.”
The 2015 policy change coincided with a new contract for the union that represents correctional officers, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
The union didn’t support ending pregnancy accommodations, CCPOA spokeswoman Nichol Gomez said.
“The CCPOA team concluded that the old policy wasn’t broken and shouldn’t be fixed,” Gomez said in an email. “The system had been working for the individuals who need it. The CCPOA team disagreed with the basic regulation change so strongly the CCPOA team members chose not to put CCPOA’s stamp of approval on the idea.”