Curtis Patrick is no stranger to the bitter dispute between union and management at Northeast Pre-Release Center, the women's prison on East 30th Street. As prison investigator, part of Patrick's job is to gather evidence when guards are accused of having sex with inmates. And that has been happening a lot. In the past five years, the center has disciplined more employees for fooling around with inmates than has either of the state's other two women's facilities ["Authority Problem," March 12, 2003].
Guards, however, claim that management is using bogus criminal prosecutions to try to keep them in line. This became abundantly clear last spring during the trial of William Wheeler, who was accused of sexually battering two inmates. During breaks in the proceedings, guards who supported Wheeler loudly denounced Warden Bennie Kelly and Investigator Patrick. Patrick even received threats. "I was told if he went to jail, I would be murdered," he said at the time.
The last four months have done little to cool the contentious relations. In fact, the situation has gotten worse. Last month, Patrick was himself the target of an investigation, when he was accused of sexually harassing a fellow employee. And that wasn't the only complaint against him.
"It looks extremely bad, and what it says is that there's something horrendously wrong with management at the Northeast Pre-Release Center," says Donna Jackson, the head of the prison employees' union, who seems gleeful about the new development. "Curtis Patrick, being in the position that he's in, should never be allowed to investigate any situation that's going on at the Northeast Pre-Release Center as long as there's these types of allegations hanging over his head."
To hear Warden Kelly tell it, the alleged harassment was a simple misunderstanding. He says Patrick accidentally bumped into a female employee and then said, "Oh, you know you love me." That phrase, Kelly notes, is commonly used by African Americans around people with whom they feel comfortable. (Both Patrick and the alleged victim are black.) "He was joking with her," Kelly says, but adds that "whether playing or not, that statement was inappropriate, and I don't condone making those kind of statements. I issued him a written reprimand."
Patrick was placed on administrative leave for 10 days while the incident was investigated by the prison department's central office. Kelly says the probe "found no evidence to support sexual harassment," and Patrick has since returned to work. Kelly also says several other employees came forward to complain about Patrick after the original accusation was made, but that the allegations are little more than sour grapes. "Curtis is very aggressive in performing his job duties, and some of the staff have problems with that," Kelly says.
Union officials describe the allegations differently. They say that when Patrick supposedly "bumped" into the employee, the act was more overtly sexual. One union official, who asked not to be named, says Patrick "rubbed himself against her when he bumped into her -- his private part into her rear end." They also say that at least three women -- some of them in management -- have come forward to accuse Patrick of sexual harassment, and that the complaints were more serious than what was described by Warden Kelly.
An incident report leaked to Scene by the union seems to support that contention. The report documents a July 13 telephone call from the husband of a corrections officer -- not the same employee Patrick "bumped." The husband said his wife was in the hospital and wouldn't be coming to work that night. "He informed me that troopers from the Ohio State Highway Patrol found her hysterical at a roadside rest after she left work that morning and that she was insisting that she could not stay in the hospital, since she would be fired if she did not come to work," the report says. The man also said his wife had been sexually harassed by Patrick.
Getting to the truth is no easy task. Warden Kelly is refusing to release any records of the investigation until he receives a written report of the findings from the prison department, which he anticipates will take at least a month. The alleged victims did not respond to Scene's attempts to contact them, and union officials say the women fear repercussions from management. Also, union and management are locked in such a nasty fight that neither can be counted on to provide an unbiased view of events.
When contacted by Scene, Investigator Patrick refused to provide his version of what happened and instead repeatedly threatened to sue if this article were published. "You know what? You better get you a good attorney to find out what sexual harassment is, because it sounds like slander to me," Patrick said. "I have been exonerated. There has been no sexual harassment."
The spat between union and management is having repercussions beyond the prison's walls. William Wheeler's trial -- where the bad blood first came to the fore -- ended in a hung jury, and he's scheduled to be tried again on August 18. This time, however, Patrick's trustworthiness may be an issue, thanks to the sexual harassment allegations made against him. James Willis, Wheeler's attorney, has filed a motion requesting that the prison turn over the names of Patrick's accusers. The attorney hopes to use the information to impeach Patrick's testimony.
"Here he is, complaining about people involved in sexual harassment of sorts, using their position to assert authority," Willis says of Patrick. "And apparently he's indulging himself in the same pastime. And I think that's crazy. I don't think he has any credibility at all."
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