A former Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy has filed a lawsuit alleging she was fired in retaliation for reporting advances made by her supervisor at the New Orleans jail, where other female deputies have complained of a culture of sexual harassment.
Victoria Harris alleges in the Dec. 12 federal lawsuit that the jail’s warden and human resources director ignored her as she asked for help fending off the “daily” harassment from her sergeant.
But the Sheriff’s Office says Harris was terminated for visiting with, and posting a picture on social media of, Widner “Flow” Degruy, an inmate awaiting trial on murder charges who was also an up-and-coming rapper associated with Lil Wayne’s record label.
The suit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo. Harris is seeking unspecified financial damages.
According to her lawsuit, Harris started working as a deputy in the Orleans Justice Center in August 2017. She says that over the next four months, she was “routinely and regularly subjected” to an environment where male deputies regularly rated their female colleagues on their bodies, “sexiness” and other inappropriate topics.
The dangers of the New Orleans jail are many and well-documented: riots, suicides, airborne human waste and frequent attacks by inmates on guards.
Harris claims that her immediate supervisor, Sgt. Brandon Savage, continually pursued her. He tried to have her accompany him to different corners of the jail, asked her to go for drinks after work and made other advances, according to the lawsuit.
Harris said her discomfort came to a head in December 2017, when she rushed to help stop a fight in another deputy’s tier. Instead of praising her, Savage reprimanded her for letting the fight break out. He also said he would punish her by transferring her to "the docks," a holding area for inmates with court dates.
Harris said she was called in for a meeting with the jail’s warden, Maj. Nicole Harris, two days later. Victoria Harris said she told the warden that Savage made up a story about her failing to stop the fight on the other deputy’s tier because she had refused his advances.
The warden promised to look into Harris’ allegation, according to the lawsuit. Yet neither the warden nor Johnette Staes, then the jail’s human resources director, returned Harris’ follow-up calls about the sexual harassment complaint she wanted to make, according to the lawsuit.
Harris said that after several days of scheduled leave, she returned to the jail on Dec. 13, 2017, to find an internal affairs agent, Kevin Talley, waiting for her.
Talley told Harris that she was under investigation for allegedly slipping contraband to Degruy, who was awaiting trial in a double homicide. Talley said he had a tip from an “internal source” but would not elaborate, according to the suit.
Harris acknowledges that she went to high school with Degruy. But she said she informed her supervisor about their acquaintance, as required by policy, and never brought him anything illegal.
Investigators did not find any contraband on her, she said. Nevertheless, the Sheriff’s Office put her on administrative leave the next day for acting in a “manner unbecoming” a deputy.
Harris alleges that Savage made a false tip about contraband to punish her for trying to report his sexual harassment. She said that even though another deputy, Oshen Heilman, has been convicted for bringing contraband to Degruy, she has never been cleared or asked to return to work.
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The former deputy alleges that while she has never been formally fired, she was in essence let go for reporting sexual harassment.
Savage referred questions to the Sheriff's Office, which he left in May.
Earlier this year, several current and former deputies spoke to The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV about a culture where they said male deputies made leering comments about female colleagues, and the jail's management did nothing.
In a statement, the jail’s lawyer dismissed Harris’s lawsuit as “frivolous.” Blake Arcuri, the jail’s general counsel, said Harris was actually fired for getting too close to Degruy.
“Despite the claims set forth in her lawsuit, Mrs. Harris was terminated after she posted a photograph of an incarcerated individual on social media, and was observed visiting him while in the jail. Failure to disclose a relationship with an inmate, as well as further association with an inmate, is strictly prohibited and is grounds for termination,” Arcuri said.
Degruy has been in jail for more than three years awaiting trial in the killing of brothers Kendrick “Muddy Cup” Bishop, 22, and Kendred Bishop, 18. He is currently housed at the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center in St. Charles Parish, which sometimes houses inmates who rack up disciplinary offenses in Orleans Parish.
Savage is named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with Nicole Harris, Talley and Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
Victoria Harris is being represented by Bryce G. Murray and Jenny Abshier, of the Big Easy Law Group, and Michael Collins, of the Collins Law Firm.
Editor's note: This story was changed Dec. 26 to clarify Savage's response.
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