Federal lawsuit accuses York County Prison of racial discrimination, harassment

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Two corrections officers at York County Prison have filed a federal lawsuit claiming the prison discriminates against them because they are African-American and retaliates when they report it.

Iris Chambers and Lamar DeShields, a married couple, are co-plaintiffs in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 17.

The suit alleges a pattern of verbal harassment, discriminatory job assignments and bullying, as well as inaction on the part of upper management to address the plaintiffs' concerns.

In one example, the lawsuit claims that non-African-American employees, including managers, make comments to Chambers and DeShields about "eating watermelon and fried chicken," and the prison administration is dismissive when they complain.

Brian R. Mildenberg, one of three attorneys representing Chambers and DeShields, said his clients felt compelled to bring the suit to stop racial discrimination and end the hostile working environment at the prison.

"My clients are concerned about the treatment both of African-American employees as well as African-American and other minority prisoners," Mildenberg said.

Mildenberg confirmed that both Chambers and DeShields still work at the prison.

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The dates of the alleged violations are not listed in the lawsuit.

Warden Clair Doll was appointed by the York County Prison Board in May 2017 to replace former Warden Mary Sabol, who served from 2008 to 2017.

York County spokesman Mark Walters declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The county does have an Equal Employment Opportunity Plan on file that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, age, religious preference, marital status, disability or any other protected status.

Allegations: Chambers, who has worked at the prison since 2008, and DeShields, who has been an employee since 2003, are routinely passed over for promotions and assigned to work in the most dangerous areas of the prison, the suit alleges.

In one instance, the lawsuit states that another corrections officer shared Chambers' personal information with inmates, putting Chambers in physical danger and violating prison policy.

The suit states that Chambers reported the violation to the prison warden but that the warden did not address the situation or take any action against the other officer.

The lawsuit claims that on more than one occasion, when Chambers was walking between buildings at the prison complex, a different officer locked the prison doors to prevent Chambers from entering.

This officer allegedly allowed non-African-American employees to re-enter the building without issue.

Chambers reported the officer's misconduct to the warden, the lawsuit alleges, but the warden did not take action against the officer in question.

Non-African-American employees also taunt Chambers about her hair, the suit claims, and Chambers now receives medical treatment for stress and anxiety due to her work environment.

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In addition, the suit claims that during an incident with a white female officer who was allegedly bullying Chambers, the white officer allowed another female into the cell block as "back up," which is reportedly against prison policy.

Chambers reported the incident to the warden, who acted concerned about it but took no action against the white officer, according to the lawsuit.

Alleged retaliation: Chambers was reportedly suspended for one day in December 2018. The lawsuit alleges she was suspended in retaliation after filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in or around May 2018, as well as for internal complaints she made about the alleged discrimination.

Also alleged in the lawsuit is hiring discrimination.

The lawsuit states that hiring family members of current employees is common practice at York County Prison, and that DeShields tried to get his son a job as a corrections officer.

The prison did not hire DeShields' son but did hire 33 other new employees who were not African-American, according to the lawsuit.

"It is typical and commonplace for YCP to hire the family members of Caucasian corrections officers," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also states that York County Prison employs more than 500 people, but only about 20 of those employees are African-American.

Additionally, DeShields complained to the warden that a co-worker displayed a Confederate flag on York County Prison property, but the complaint was never resolved, the suit claims.

DeShields also filed a complaint with the EEOC in or around May 2018, and the lawsuit alleges the prison retaliated against him because of it.

Chambers has reportedly "suffered physically, emotionally and mentally" as a direct result of her work environment, and both Chambers and DeShields have been humiliated, embarrassed and emotionally distressed, the lawsuit states.

Finally, the lawsuit claims that the prison's alleged violations and discriminatory practices were "willful and done with deliberate indifference" to the plaintiffs' statutory and constitutional rights.

Chambers and DeShields are seeking compensatory damages for earnings and associated benefits lost due to lack of professional promotions; pain, suffering and humiliation; physical, emotional and mental injuries; and attorneys fees, along with any other relief the court deems appropriate.

Mildenberg said it's still early in the legal process and that the county hasn't yet filed a response to the lawsuit.