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The Derogatory Instagram Account Run by a Prison Guard: Exploring the Hostile Work Environment at FCC Lompoc

A vulgar Instagram account that degraded female prison employees at the Federal Correctional Complex in Lompoc is at the center of a lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The account, named “8_and_hitthe_gate,” was run by a prison supervisor and frequently posted offensive and degrading content. The case raises questions about how the BOP treats its employees and the disparity between guards who mock inmates and medical staff who prioritize inmate well-being.

The Offensive Instagram Account:
The “8_and_hitthe_gate” Instagram account targeted female prison employees, mocking their bodies after pregnancy and making light of suicide. One post featured a meme of Jeffrey Epstein with the words “Don’t leave me hanging this Valentine’s Day,” dedicated to the “SHU Crew” in reference to the Special Housing Unit where self-harm rates are high. These posts were unquestionably offensive and degrading, but a court ruled that they did not establish a hostile work environment claim.

The Lawsuit and Court Ruling:
A former facility psychologist, Lindsay Okonowsky, who was targeted by the account, filed a lawsuit against the BOP. She alleged that the BOP created a hostile work environment by failing to address the offensive Instagram account. However, the court ruled against Okonowsky, stating that the prison lieutenant’s conduct was not severe or pervasive enough to establish a hostile work environment claim. The court also acknowledged that BOP officials took remedial measures through an investigative and disciplinary process.

Questions about BOP Treatment of Employees:
The case raises concerns about how the BOP treats its employees, particularly the disparity between guards who publicly mock inmates and medical staff who prioritize inmate well-being. With federal prisons overcrowded and understaffed, it is crucial to examine how the BOP ensures a safe and respectful work environment for all employees.

Discovery of the Offensive Account:
In February 2020, Okonowsky discovered the “8_and_hitthe_gate” account while scrolling on Instagram. She reported the account to her supervisors, highlighting the significant public relations issues it posed for FCC Lompoc and the BOP. However, her concerns were dismissed by some of her co-workers and even the human resources manager, who found the memes funny.

Investigation and Consequences:
After Okonowsky’s multiple reports, a threat assessment team was convened to review her complaints. The team found that the prison supervisor, Lt. Hellman, admitted to running the account but denied targeting Okonowsky. However, the team concluded that Hellman’s actions constituted bullying and potentially other misconduct. He was referred to internal affairs for a misconduct investigation and issued a cease-and-desist order. The outcome of the investigation is unknown, but it was confirmed that Hellman is now in a more senior position than before.

Continued Offensive Posts:
Despite the cease-and-desist order, Hellman continued posting sexist material for nearly a month before finally closing the “8_and_hitthe_gate” account in May 2020. This further highlights the failure of the BOP to effectively address the issue and protect its employees from a hostile work environment.

The Lawsuit Continues:
Okonowsky filed a lawsuit against the BOP in 2021, seeking justice for the hostile work environment she experienced due to Hellman’s Instagram account. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will consider whether her claims should go to a jury, indicating that there is still hope for accountability and justice in this case.

The case of the offensive Instagram account run by a prison supervisor at FCC Lompoc sheds light on the treatment of employees within the BOP. The court ruling, while acknowledging the offensive nature of the posts, raises questions about what constitutes a hostile work environment. It is crucial for the BOP to address these issues and ensure a safe and respectful work environment for all employees, regardless of their role within the prison system. The lawsuit filed by Lindsay Okonowsky serves as a reminder that accountability and justice are essential in combating a hostile work environment.

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