One of the area’s odder cases was dismissed in federal court this month when a judge upheld the termination of a female Wake County Detention Center officer who stood next to a naked inmate while he showered.
The judge’s ruling wraps up the gender discrimination lawsuit that plaintiff Monifa Gethers had filed against Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.
On Jan. 5, 2010, a prisoner at the Raleigh detention center smeared himself with feces and wrapped himself in a blanket. Gethers, a sergeant, claimed she helped escort him to the shower. Two male officers claimed they told Gethers that her presence was no longer necessary once the inmate was inside the shower, but that she refused to leave. Gethers, however, alleged the two officers never explicitly gave her those instructions, and that she was positioned inside the shower so that she could not see the naked prisoner.
Detention center policy mandates that employees shouldn’t be present when an opposite-sex inmate showers or is naked. That policy, however, does not appear to be anywhere in writing, nor was it distributed to staff.
Earlier in the day of the shower incident, the same prisoner had spread feces on his body and the walls of another cell. While other officers donned protective gear and prepared to extract the prisoner, Gethers had walked to the prisoner’s cell by herself, removed him and placed him in a holding cell. Her captain later praised her for handling the situation so diligently. Harrison, however, would note that Gethers’ action presented a serious risk to Gethers, other officers and other prisoners. (The prisoner was agitated and had a history of assaultive behavior.)
When Sheriff Donnie Harrison learned about the shower incident, he launched an investigation. The following month he demoted Gethers. During a follow-up meeting with Harrison, Gethers denied that she could see the prisoner nude. Harrison determined that Gethers was being untruthful, and he fired her, prompting Gethers to sue.
Harrison filed a motion to dismiss the case. Earlier this month, Senior District Judge Judge James C. Cox sided with Harrison.
“In employment of this type, a policy prohibiting women from being in the shower area while a male prisoner showers is simply not discriminatory,” Cox wrote in his order. “The nature of the employment requires some gender-specific policies designed to protect the privacy and dignity of the inmates.
Gethers’ claim that she never saw the inmate naked while she was standing in the shower area, Cox added, “is largely beside the point. The purpose of the policy is to provide inmates some degree of privacy and respect when they are nude.”