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Iowa to pay $71,000 after former prisoner wins employment discrimination case

Iowa to pay $71,000 after former prisoner wins employment discrimination case

December 2, 2013, Written by Jason Clayworth, Des Moines Register

Iowa will pay $71,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a former inmate at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility who alleged sexual harassment in employment at her prison job.

The lawsuit established that prisoners have civil rights protections in employment. It was successful after a 2010 Iowa Supreme Court decision that allowed the case to move forward, said Jeffrey Thompson of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

“We think it’s a fair resolution of a difficult case,” Thompson said of the $71,000 settlement.

The case involved Melissa Lee Renda, 43, a Des Moines resident who was serving time at the prison following a 2002 conviction of felony drug charges.

In 2007, Renda filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission that alleged sexual harassment and retaliation in employment from her job as a discharge clerk, where she made $4.20 a day.

Renda alleged that corrections officer Jim Ackles made romantic advances towards her and that he gave her money and gifts — such as an Eminem album — in violation of prison policies.

Renda also alleged that Ackles threatened to have her transferred to the state prison in Mitchellville if she reported the actions. She spent nine days in solitary confinement after she initially declined to speak with an investigator following an anonymous tip of Ackles’ alleged inappropriate behavior. And she was fired from the job and later denied a position in the prison’s recreation department, according to her lawsuit.

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission ultimately closed the complaint because it determined that a prisoner was not considered an employee under Iowa law.

A district court affirmed the commission’s conclusion but the Iowa Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that Renda’s status as a prisoner did not necessarily preclude her from employee protections under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

Renda, who was released from parole last year, will receive $25,000 while her attorney Roxanne Conlin will receive $46,000, according to a settlement approved today by the Iowa Appeal Board.

Renda currently lives in the Des Moines area. She took full advantage of various prison drug and rehabilitation programs and is now employed, Conlin said.

“She has made a wonderful life for herself,” Conlin said. “She’s completely rehabilitated, she’s substance free and she has a job she loves.”

Conlin said the case gives prisoners a necessary protection.

“One of the things that makes a civil rights remedy important is that prisoners are truly at the mercy of the staff of the guards and need some kind of protection,” Conlin said. “I think in general our prisons do a pretty good job but in this case, the guard took advantage of his position and there needed to be a remedy.”

Ackles is still employed as a correctional officer at Mount Pleasant, state records show.

Fred Scaletta, a spokesman for the prison, said prison officials needed to review the case and couldn’t immediately comment Monday.

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