Ocean County corrections officers file suit alleging sexual harassment, workplace hostility

In her eight years with the Ocean County Department of Corrections, Sgt. Sarah Prioli says she’s endured relentless sexual harassment and gender discrimination that’s prevented her from being promoted, and she says she’s experienced retaliation by her superiors for reporting it.

“It makes me sad, angry, like I don’t matter,” Prioli said.

In a 51-page lawsuit against the department, Prioli and four other female corrections officers allege rampant harassment, sex bias and workplace hostility by senior officers, including sexually explicit and derogatory comments like, “pig vomit” and “everyone gets a turn.”

“I had a supervisor who was sending me unsolicited and inappropriate text messages in reference to my body. I have a co-worker who lied to officers and inmates as a way to undermine my authority, and considering where I work, that puts me in a really dangerous situation,” Prioli said.

All five women in the suit are sergeants and continue to work for the department with careers spanning between seven and 23 years. The lawsuit lists roughly 30 alleged violations of federal and state law by corrections workers. Prioli says the women started speaking up after realizing the pervasive sexual harassment had been going on for years.

“The most disappointing thing is that people that are in a position of power to help, they continue to ignore our pleas for help,” Prioli said.

The Ocean County Freeholder Board oversees the facility. The civil suit names the county and four correctional employees as defendants, including the warden, deputy warden, a captain and lieutenant. All deny the allegations.

Some members of the freeholder board have themselves faced allegations of harassment and discrimination over the years. Board members did not return our repeated request for an interview or comment. An attorney representing two of the correctional facility defendants also declined to comment due to active litigation.

Prioli says she’s experienced fear about losing her job.

“I know how women are viewed coming forward in male dominated cultures like the one that I work in. I just fear they’ll going to try and find any little thing that they can to try and terminate me,” she said.

Prioli says she’s been passed over for promotions and training, and was forced to work longer hours and inconvenient schedules. The lawsuit details it as punishment for filing reports against her harassers. Despite receiving help through the Times Up Legal Defense Fund, which was formed out of the #MeToo movement, she despairs every day before heading to work.

“Even filing the lawsuit, it hasn’t made anything better,” she said. “Now I’m just being made fun of and derogatory comments are being made about us.”

The female officers are asking the court to rule the behavior illegal and grant lost wages and other damages, though an amount is not specified. The county and four supervisors have filed a cross claim for their own legal fees.

“You got to still go to work every day and push through. I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I’m going to keep fighting for what I think is right so more women don’t have to go through what we’re going through.”

Prioli expects a long battle.