Lawsuit alleges CA fails to protect correctional officers who become pregnant

Josh Haskell Image
Wednesday, September 20, 2023
Suit alleges CA discriminates against pregnant correctional officers
Former California corrections officer Sarah Coogle alleges she lost her unborn child because the CDCR would not move her to a safer role during her pregnancy.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Sarah Coogle loved her job at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, 40 miles southeast of Bakersfield.

But when she became pregnant, everything changed.

"When I was first hired, there was a policy in place. There were accommodations," said Coogle.

Prior to 2015, the California Department of Corrections had a policy that allowed pregnant staff who worked inside state prisons to move to safer positions.

But when Coogle told her superiors that she was pregnant at the end of 2016, she was told she could either continue working in her current role, or wasn't fit for duty. Not wanting to accept a demotion resulting in less pay and a loss of benefits, Coogle stayed on.

"At 7 months pregnant, I was running to an incident, fell, and later lost my child to a placental abruption from that fall, from that trauma. Had CDCR not changed their policy and had allowed reasonable accommodation, this never would have happened," said Coogle.

In 2018, Coogle settled with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for $1.7 million.

She isn't the only female CDCR employee who has accused the department of discrimination. Nearly 300 women, many of whom still work for CDCR, are part of a civil lawsuit filed in Los Angles Superior Court that accuses the agency of denying them reasonable accommodation during their pregnancies.

"It's not safe to have us working the line as a pregnant officer because I cannot respond in the same way that I would not-pregnant," said Angela Powell, a correctional officer at CMF Vacaville.

"The problem is there are positions, say the front entrance, or a tower, or a sallyport that are completely away from inmates. Those positions have to be filled anyway, but instead of placing us in those positions, they gave us the option, hey come to work and do your job or stay home," Powell said.

Powell has worked at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville for almost 10 years.

In 2017, she was forced to go on early disability because she says CDCR wouldn't move her to a safer role. She joined the civil suit because she says she wants to regain what she lost.

"You work in a housing unit with hundreds of inmates who are murderers, rapists, child molesters. They don't care about you. You are expected to do all of the job duties as a non-pregnant person even when you're pregnant. Because I had to go out on early maternity leave, I lost half of my wages during that time. I lost seniority, I lost retirement, I lost my hours, sick and vacation leave," said Powell.

"It's not a friendly environment for pregnant women. It's definitely not a safe environment. It's scary, going to work every day. You sign yourself up for it. Start your employment there, but you don't sign up your unborn child," said Melissa Glaude, also a correctional officer at CMF Vacaville.

Lia McKeown has worked at CMF Vacaville since 2007. She says she's been injured numerous times including during an emergency cell extraction which is a routine occurrence for prison guards.

They're faced with inmates who don't want to comply - often kicking, hitting, punching, head-butting guards as they're dragged out of their cells

Another routine occurrence for correctional officers: Gassings - which is when bodily fluids, including urine, feces, blood, semen and saliva are thrown at them.

When McKeown returned to work just a few weeks after she gave birth, she was shocked by the lack of empathy from her bosses.

"I actually said to the lieutenant at the time, I just had a baby which is how it is for me right now, I have to be off for the baby and for myself. And he said, well my wife just had a baby and she went right back to work," McKeown said. "And I just said OK, but she doesn't work in a prison. How is that even comparable?"

Attorney Arnold Peter represented Sarah Coogle and now represents all the plaintiffs in the civil suit, which was brought in 2019.

In 2020, the policy which denied pregnant women reasonable accommodation was changed back.

The statute of limitations in this case expires in March of next year. Although Peter has tried to settle with CDCR, he believes they're headed to trial seeking damages in excess of $100 million.

"It's absolutely outrageous that in one of the most progressive states in the union, very progressive administration, that they had to make a choice between having a child or keeping their job," Peter said. "It's an untenable choice they had to make. No man or woman should ever be put in that position."

In a statement, CDCR said they "cannot comment on ongoing litigation. CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) are committed to operating in the safest manner possible while adhering to all applicable state and federal laws, rules and regulations relating to occupational safety and health."

The women in the civil suit have sent letters to Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Attorney General Rob Bonta asking them to intervene.

Newsom's office told Eyewitness News that CDCR is best positioned to respond on behalf of the governor.

But the California Civil Rights Department, a state agency charged with protecting residents from discrimination, has also brought a separate lawsuit against CDCR for the same 2015 policy which is being heard by the same judge as the civil suit.

"Governor Newsom's administration has led the nation in protecting the rights of working women," Peter said. "Especially those who risk their lives for us on a daily basis. What we have is a surprising clash between two departments reporting directly to the governor."

As for Sarah Coogle, who now lives in Arkansas with her husband and three-and-a-half year old daughter, it's difficult for her to hear how many other female correctional officers suffered from that same policy.

"That little baby would be six years old," Coogle said. "It's heartbreaking. I see other children running around that are about her age. It's a constant reminder of what I lost. It didn't have to be this way."