A female corrections officer has filed a federal lawsuit against the state that says she and other women have experienced “severe and pervasive” sexual harassment and discrimination during their work in Maine prisons.

Autumn Dinsmore, 26, now works at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren. She first filed a complaint to the Maine Human Rights Commission, which found reasonable grounds to believe the state discriminated against her on the basis of sex by subjecting her to disparate treatment and a hostile work environment. She then sued the Maine Department of Corrections in the U.S. District Court of Maine on Monday.

“Through her employment by the department, Autumn has endured a work environment that is hostile and abusive to female COs,” the complaint says. “This severe and pervasive harassment stems from an institutional mindset – male COs to supervisors and administrators – that women COs should not work there. And the discriminatory atmosphere is rife with stereotypical and derogatory assumptions about female COs, including that they are inherently unfit because they will inevitably succumb to intimate relationships with male prisoners.”

A spokeswoman from the Maine Department of Corrections did not answer a question Tuesday about how many women work as corrections officers in state prisons. She said the department is not able to comment on pending litigation.

“The department is and continues to be committed to ensuring that all employees are treated appropriately and with respect, irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, nationality or creed,” Anna Black wrote in an email. “Behavior otherwise is not acceptable.”

Attorney Shelby Leighton, who represents Dinsmore, said her client did not wish to be interviewed about the case because she is still a department employee.

“Autumn has worked bravely and tirelessly for years to change the culture at Maine State Prison, which is abusive and unwelcoming to women, and gay women in particular,” Leighton said in a news release. “We are hopeful that filing this lawsuit will lead to women employees of the prison finally being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Dinsmore started working at the Maine State Prison in Warren in January 2017. Court documents described the alleged comments and conduct by male corrections officers. Within days on her new job, a male officer asked her whether she was “looking for love or a lawsuit.” The complaint mentions other comments from male officers about how they did not think women should work at the prison.

“Autumn also received sexual overtures from male officers, including officers who sent her unsolicited and unwanted photos of their genitalia on Snapchat and who pressured her to send nude photos of herself to them,” the complaint says. “Autumn and other female officers overheard male officers making inappropriate comments about having sex with female officers and talking about competing to see who could sleep with a new female officer first.”

Dinsmore is gay, and the complaint also details comments from her supervisors and co-workers about her sexual orientation. For example, one supervisor told her co-worker that he should try to “flip” her sexual orientation by having sex with her. She also heard her supervisor use a homophobic slur in front of her.

“The institutional mistrust of women COs and refusal of Autumn’s male co-workers and supervisors to accept her sexual orientation led to Autumn being harshly disciplined when her similarly situated male counterparts were treated much more leniently for incidents of comparable or greater seriousness,” the complaint says.

In one instance, the complaint says Dinsmore was concerned that a former prisoner was stalking her. She requested help from the prison but did not receive it. She eventually called the prisoner herself to ask him to leave her alone. The complaint says she was suspended for two weeks for having contact with that person, while male corrections officers who speak to or meet with former prisoners are not disciplined.

The investigator at the Maine Human Rights Commission reviewed the allegations about unequal discipline.

“Neither party asserts that (Dinsmore) exercised perfect or even good judgment at every moment, or disputes that her conduct did sometimes violate DOC policy,” Kit Thomson Crossman wrote in the report. “However, the discipline issued to (Dinsmore), for infractions for which her male colleagues received no or lesser discipline, and the general atmosphere at the prison support (Dinsmore)’s allegation that she was discriminated against based on her sex.”

The commission ultimately found reasonable grounds for discrimination on the basis of sex, but not on the basis of sexual orientation or disability.

The complaint includes examples of sexual harassment and unequal treatment involving other female corrections officers as well. The court has not yet set a deadline for the department to answer the complaint. The lawsuit also names as defendants two individual employees of the Department of Corrections. In addition to financial damages, Dinsmore is asking for the court to order civil rights training for the department’s human resources employees and supervisors.

The lawsuit is similar to one brought in 2013. In that case, a former female corrections officer also said she was discriminated against as the only woman and only openly gay officer on the night shift at the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport at the time. The parties eventually reached a settlement in 2016, but the agreement is not included in the court docket, and a spokeswoman for the department did not respond Tuesday to a request for a copy.

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