IOWA CITY, Iowa — An Iowa prison's practice of showing male inmates sexually graphic movies is the focus of a trial beginning next week in which a female officer will argue the images encouraged them to harass and threaten her.
Kristine Sink argues that superiors at the maximum-security Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison and the Department of Corrections dismissed her complaints about the sexual and violent content for years. Instead, they ordered her not to turn the movies off.
The inmates — including sex offenders serving life sentences — became aroused and hostile toward Sink during the movies, exposing themselves, masturbating and shouting sexual comments and obscenities. Some of the inmates threatened to beat, rape and kill Sink, who worked in the prison's Clinical Care Unit for inmates with mental illness and severe behavioral problems.
State lawyers are expected to argue that Sink's treatment wasn't illegal, noting that prisons are inherently difficult places to work.
Sink's attorney, Paige Fiedler, plans to play clips from the movies and shows during the trial, which starts Monday at the Polk County Courthouse and is expected to last three weeks. They include "Deranged," a horror film that includes a scene in which a woman is tortured and raped; "Delta of Venus," an erotic film; and the Showtime series, "Californication."
"I think a picture is worth a thousand words and a movie is worth more," said Fiedler, calling Sink "nervous and excited" to have her day in court after a decade of workplace conflict.
The Iowa Attorney General's Office argues that Sink, who has since been transferred to another unit, didn't face gender-based discrimination or a hostile work environment. Her negative reaction to the movies isn't enough for her to prevail because the Iowa Civil Rights Act "is not designed to be a civility code," state lawyers wrote in a brief.
Judge Jeffrey Farrell ruled Wednesday that jurors will decide whether Sink suffered sexual harassment, based on claims that superiors didn't respond to her complaints about the movies and the inmates' reaction. He also ruled that state officials "have not shown a business need to show movies and shows with sexually explicit material," but dismissed Sink's retaliation claims.
Fiedler plans to ask jurors to award compensatory damages and Farrell to order equitable relief, which could include policy or employment changes.
Since Sink was hired in 2003, she has faced more threats than any other officer, the prison's security director testified. Yet her complaints about the movies — sometimes played multiple times a day for a week in a common area — went nowhere for years.
Sink was repeatedly instructed not to turn them off, once being placed under investigation for insubordination after she did, records show. Former Warden John Ault dismissed a 2007 complaint filed by Sink that alleged the showing of "Deranged" violated the state's violence-free workplace policy, writing in one email that she was the one creating a hostile environment. He's expected to testify.
One lieutenant told Sink the harassment should be expected because she was a "beautiful woman," while another said it may be her outfit — a standard-issue uniform — that was enticing inmates, Sink says. Two other coworkers who harassed Sink have been fired.
When officials finally barred movies with sexually explicit content in September 2011, inmates blamed Sink and subjected her to a torrent of insults and threats. Sink filed the lawsuit a year later, saying she wanted to hold administrators accountable.
"Kristine was subjected to sexually explicit and sexually violent movies piped into her workplace by the State of Iowa itself," Fiedler wrote in her trial brief. "It sent the message to inmates and coworkers that it was acceptable for them to sexually harass, too."