[ lawsuits ]
In 2009, the Philadelphia Prisons System was on the lookout for a new deputy commissioner, the second-highest ranking official in that department, and Harriet Spencer believed she was the woman for the job.
Spencer, who is African-American, has a bachelor's degree, a master's in human services and a law degree from Temple. She had more than 30 years of experience in city prisons, serving in every position from corrections officer to lieutenant to her current job as executive director of the Office of Special Events/commissioner's special assistant. Under Mayor John Street, she even ascended to the head of the city's Office for the Reentry of Ex-Offenders.
But Spencer didn't get the job — instead, it went to Clyde Gainey, a man (also African-American) who, Spencer now says, has no degree and lacks other fundamental requirements of the job.
So it occurred to Spencer: Maybe she wasn't the right woman for the job simply because she is just that — a woman, and the city was looking for the right man for the job. This February, Spencer filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that she is a victim of gender discrimination.
This lawsuit, which hasn't been reported until now, marks the second time in the past year that a former high-ranking official has sued the city for gender discrimination. As reported in the Daily News last month, Sgt. Kimberly Byrd — who was once the top aide to former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson — filed a lawsuit in July 2010 claiming that she was a victim of gender discrimination under current Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
According to the picture laid out in Spencer's lawsuit, sexism is alive and well within the Prisons System under Commissioner Louis Giorla. And even if a court determines that she was not discriminated against due to her gender, her suit still raises questions about whether and why prison leaders seem to be rolling back reforms meant to professionalize the department.
In her lawsuit, Spencer lays out a few key pieces of evidence to support her claim.
She claims, for instance, that the city didn't follow its own rules while hiring Gainey. According to the Prisons System's documents, the "minimum acceptable training and experience" for a deputy commissioner is a graduate degree in a relevant field, or a bachelor's degree accompanied by workplace experience. But Gainey, she says, lacks a degree of any kind.
When asked to confirm or deny this, the Prisons System spokesperson, Gainey and the city's Law Department all declined comment. But in Gainey's biography on the Prisons System website, it notes that he has "attended" St. Augustine's College and Philadelphia Community College, but doesn't say whether he ever obtained a degree — unlike other prisons employees, whose bios clearly spell this out.
Representatives at St. Augustine's confirmed that Gainey did not receive a degree; Philadelphia Community College wouldn't release the information.
Spencer also points out that the Prisons System never formally announced the opening of the deputy commissioner position, though she made Giorla aware of her interest. In its legal pleadings, the city admits that it never publicized the job, but makes the argument that it wasn't a "civil service" position. Speaking through her lawyer, Larry Woehrle, Spencer says that she should have at least been allowed to apply for the job.
Adds Woehrle, "Ms. Spencer not only has a comprehensive knowledge of the Philadelphia Prisons System based on her ascent through the correctional ranks, but she has three academic degrees — including a law degree — which bear directly on the position she was seeking. She was absolutely the best qualified person for the position."
As evidence, Spencer's lawsuit claims that former Prisons Commissioner Thomas Costello "initiated Spencer's promotion to the position of deputy commissioner based on her outstanding performance record, years of experience and educational background" — but was never able to complete it because he retired shortly thereafter. (City Paper was unable to reach Costello for comment.)
Except for the scant information provided in its pleadings, the city's side of the story is relatively unknown — and will likely remain so until October, when the case is set to go to trial. The Law Department's Jennifer Burns says, "The city will not comment on active litigation." The Prisons System spokesperson made a similar statement, as did Gainey.
Further complicating this case is the fact that Spencer also filed suit against former Prisons Commissioner Leon King in 2006 — also for gender discrimination — when he didn't promote her to deputy commissioner after Costello left.
But what exactly became of the case isn't clear. In 2007, the city entered into a confidential settlement with Spencer.
Reached over the phone, King says that Spencer was not a victim of sexism under his watch, and points out that he later promoted another African-American woman to the position of deputy commissioner. He concedes that Costello was "really pushing for [Spencer]," but says he didn't promote her because the other deputy commissioners did not believe she was a good fit, and he "didn't want to cause too much drama."
King won't issue an opinion on whether Spencer is being discriminated against now, but says he thinks Giorla should have given her a shot. He's also upset that Gainey allegedly lacks a degree. King says that he and Costello worked hard to "professionalize the prisons" in the wake of Harris v. Reeves, a federal lawsuit filed against the city in the early 1980s for its overcrowded prisons, which resulted in several reforms — including a written requirement that deputy commissioners have graduate degrees, and wardens have bachelor's degrees.
King says that the Prisons System's knotty problems can't be mended without educated people at the reins; he also argues these requirements can help squash the perception that the department is an "old boy's network."
"The Prisons System is a complex, multimillion-dollar corporation," says King, adding that in regards to the powerful deputy commissioner position, "Where else in America can someone without a degree be in charge of hundreds of correctional officers, a $227 million budget, mental health services, capital projects, you name it?"