Four Ky. COs accuse supervisor of sexual assault, indecent exposure

A male supervisor exposed himself to female officers and sexually assaulted them at the state prison in Elliott County

By Bill Estep
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. — A male supervisor exposed himself to female officers and sexually assaulted them at the state prison in Elliott County, four of the women have claimed in a lawsuit.

Sgt. Stephen Harper grabbed women's breasts and buttocks, rubbed against them and tried to force them to touch him, according to the complaint filed Monday in Elliott Circuit Court.

The lawsuit also alleges that warden Joseph Meko failed to properly investigate complaints of harassment against Harper and failed to stop the improper behavior.

"These are astonishing allegations," said Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who represents the four women along with attorneys Bill Slone of Pikeville and Joe. F. Childers of Lexington.

Lisa Lamb, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, said the department could not comment on pending litigation.

However, Lamb said the department takes all allegations of sexual harassment seriously. She said Harper has not been disciplined for any of the sexual harassment allegations in the lawsuit.

Harper could not be reached for comment.

The four female guards who filed the lawsuit are Donna Adkins, 37; Colleen Payton, 43; Linda Smith, 48; and Lisa Suliman, 53.

The lawsuit is against Harper, Meko and the Department of Corrections.

Adkins, who has worked at the prison more than nine years, said that in April 2013, Harper smacked her buttocks, grabbed her breast, kissed her neck, forced her hand onto him and tried to rape her.

Adkins said she didn't report the alleged assault for more than a year. After she told a supervisor at the prison, a state police detective who is the supervisor's twin brother interviewed her but made her feel as though she was in the wrong, Adkins said in a sworn statement.

Smith said in an affidavit that Harper improperly touched her several times in May 2014, when she was in an office in the laundry area.

On one occasion, he approached her from behind and began to rub his crotch against her, but he stopped when an inmate entered the room, Smith said.

In July, Harper exposed himself to her in a chemical room and told her to touch him, but she refused and left, Smith said.

Smith said she did not report the incident out of fear of reprisal.

Payton said Harper put his hand down her shirt and pants and exposed himself in the control room at the prison in November 2012, exposed himself to her and tried to get her to kiss him in the guard tower in January 2013, and exposed himself to her in April 2013 in a segregation area.

Payton said she reported the alleged cases to a supervisor. The prison investigated and did not substantiate the claims, according to the lawsuit.

Payton said in her statement that she asked to be given a lie-detector test but was denied.

She has since been given a written reprimand and suspended for three days. Prison officials said the discipline was for a matter unrelated to her complaints about Harper, but Payton thinks it was in retaliation for her reports, Pillersdorf said.

Suliman said in a sworn statement that Harper had touched her in an inappropriate sexual manner an estimated 30 times from last year through July.

Suliman said she told a supervisor about the sexual advances and was told she needed to file a report.

The supervisor did not report Suliman's claim as required by policy, the lawsuit said.

Suliman said in her affidavit that she didn't file a formal report because the atmosphere in the prison "is that if you complain about such sexual assaults, you are likely to lose your job or be reprimanded in some other manner."

The improper conduct alleged by the women violated their civil rights, constituted assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and created a hostile work environment, the lawsuit said.

The complaint seeks money to compensate the four female guards, punitive damages and payment for their attorneys.

It also seeks an injunction to keep Harper away from them and to bar retaliation against them.

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