The warden of the Michigan Reformatory, the head of executive affairs, and a corrections officer were recently hit was a lawsuit over sexual harassment claims.
A federal lawsuit was recently filed against the warden of the Michigan Reformatory, the head of executive affairs, and a fellow guard over allegations of sexual harassment. The suit was filed by Kristy Klenke, a corrections officer. According to Klenke, Mario Cunningham, the corrections officer mentioned in the suit, began sexually harassing her around June 2019.
According to the lawsuit, “Cunningham and Klenke texted occasionally outside of work and met up in-person a few times.” However, once Klenke learned that Cunningham was married and he began telling other members of the staff, Klenke began to feel uncomfortable, especially as he continued to call her and visited her while she was at work.
Klenke pushed back against Cunningham’s advances and said she no longer wanted to have a personal relationship with him. Instead, she wanted to keep their interactions professional. He ignored her, though, and continued texting her. In late 2019, he even sent her “flowers at work and embarrassed her,” the suit claims. He also began to change her assignments, “sometimes to a more favorable position to show her that a personal relationship with Cunningham would be beneficial to her.”
The harassment continued, and eventually, Klenke filed a harassment complaint with MDOC. According to Klenke’s attorney, Hannah Fielstra, it was not the first time a complaint had been filed against Cunningham. Even after Klenke’s complaint was substantiated by internal affairs, “the outcome of the investigation was changed to be unfounded.” Additionally, she “never received follow-up or documentation regarding the status of her complaint or a decision,” according to the lawsuit. To make matters worse, Cunningham was never disciplined and he continued to sexually harass her.
“We know women are already reluctant to come forward (about sexual harassment), and often for a good reason, so this further erodes trust and confidence in a system that’s meant to ensure fairness.”
The suit further alleges Kathy Warner, who oversees the Office of Executive Affairs, “changed the outcome of Klenke’s complaint, something she has a history of doing.”
Last July, Klenke filed another formal complaint against Cunningham when she learned he was “talking about her to other officers,” and he continued to harass her and make her feel uncomfortable. She reached out to Warner shortly after to express “concerns about the way her original complaint was handled and said she feared her second complaint would be handled the same way,” according to the suit. Eventually, Klenke’s stress got the better of her and she took unpaid stress leave from October 1 to November 6. Since her return, she has been “forced to work without a partner to back her up and in the most undesirable assignments in the prison.” She requested a transfer to a different prison but was denied. Fielstra said:
“When the system fails and when perpetrators of sexual harassment go undisciplined, it gives the perception and sometimes the unfortunate reality that engaging in conduct of things like sexual harassment won’t result in any consequences…The sexual harassment is an emotional burden you have to deal with every day.”
In response to the allegations, Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz issued the following emailed statement:
“All employees are prohibited from engaging in discriminatory harassment and managers and supervisors are required to report allegations once they become aware of them…Retaliation is not acceptable in any way and is not allowed. MDOC employees receive routine training on these important matters and it is made clear the MDOC will not tolerate any form of retaliation.”