Jury doesn’t buy department’s claim of affair with supervisor
By Jess Sullivan November 19, 2007 18:10
Ex-prison guard awarded $1 million in harassment suit
FAIRFIELD – In Underwood v. CDCR, a former guard at California State Prison, Solano in Vacaville was awarded more than $1 million by a jury Monday for her sexual harassment lawsuit.
‘It’s not about me, it’s about the other women who are still in there,’ Shawnee Underwood said of the verdict and some of her former co-workers.
The jury concluded the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had failed to take proper steps to prevent harassment in the prison workplace.
Underwood was fresh out of the academy when she began working as a swing shift guard at CSP Solano in late 2001. The harassment occurred for only a few months by her supervisor, Sgt. Randy Blackwell, until Underwood transferred to the California Medical Facility at Vacaville in early 2002.
The harassment began with a pattern of inappropriate actions by Blackwell including sending Underwood letters and gifts, and telling others he was having an affair with her, according to trial testimony.
Among the gifts Blackwell sent his subordinate was a box of golf balls carefully arranged with handwriting on some of them spelling out ‘I miss you,’ according to trial testimony.
Lawyers for CDCR during the trial relied on a claim that Underwood and Blackwell had engaged in a consensual affair – a claim rejected by the jury in its 9 to 3 verdict.
Part of CDCR’s defense was claiming that Blackwell had intimate knowledge about certain parts of Underwood’s anatomy, so they must have had an affair.
‘A supervisor should not be able to force a subordinate to have sex with him,’ Underwood’s attorney, Pamela Y. Price, said after the verdict.
Blackwell, who was then a senior commander and who still works for CDCR, testified that he had never had any training about workplace sexual harassment in his 17 years with the department.
‘I hope changes are made,’ one juror said of what she heard during the trial. Most jurors concluded that most witnesses had lied to some degree, particularly Blackwell and anyone else who still works for CDCR.
One juror said she hoped the $1 million verdict ‘was sending a message’ and knew sexual harassment with CDCR was rampant. Most jurors agreed CDCR could have done more to prevent and respond to the harassment.
‘Where was she supposed to go, being a probationary employee?’ one juror asked. ‘She was at a dead end since her sergeant was the perpetrator.’
A two-year internal investigation into Underwood’s harassment charges by CDCR ended in 2005 with a warden labeling Underwood as dishonest and threatening to seek criminal prosecution against her.
Underwood left CDCR in April 2006 and is now working in real estate.