(Third in a series)
MANCHESTER — Shannon Oakes was hitting her head on the wall and floor, and she refused to follow corrections officers’ orders when brought to Valley Street Jail on Sept. 5, 2006.
What followed later that day resulted in lawsuits that cost Hillsborough County $222,500 in settlements — most of that money going to a female corrections officer disturbed over what she had witnessed.
While strapped to a chair, Oakes was subject to derogatory remarks from male corrections officers about the size of her breasts, according to lawsuits filed against Hillsborough County and the jail. One squeezed pressure points behind her neck as she cried in pain. And a corrections officer head-butted her.
A female corrections officer of five years, Doris Sanabria received a $215,000 settlement in a suit claiming sexual harassment and retaliation when she spoke up about what she saw.
Sanabria is also on retirement disability that pays her $27,200 a year. Oakes received a one-time, $7,500 settlement.
Sanabria did not want to comment for this article or have her photograph taken, fearful that doing so might upend her settlement. Efforts to reach Oakes at a previous Londonderry addressed proved unsuccessful.
Jail Superintendent David Dionne acknowledges that an incident with an inmate did take place.
“But the way she (Sanabria) said it, it did not happen,” Dionne said. “Her story was not even consistent with the inmate’s.”
Dionne will not discuss suits in depth, citing agreements reached in the settlement of claims.
According to Sanabria’s court case, Oakes was placed in the restraint chair after banging her head on her cell wall. Her wrists and legs were fastened, and a nurse checked her circulation.
Corrections officers placed straps on her torso, and Sgt. Vincent Williams put his foot on the straps to tighten them. Doing so caused Oakes’ breasts to become prominent, the suit read.
“Sgt. Willaims made sexually derogatory remarks about inmate Oakes, including ‘Look at those melons,’ referring to her breasts,” the suit reads.
Williams, who is now a corrections lieutenant at the jail, repeated the remark, which generated laughter from other corrections officers. “You guys are animals,” said Sgt. Ryan Levierge, laughing, the suit reads.
Williams next placed his thumbs behind Oakes’ ears, purposely squeezing pressure points, which caused Oakes to say, “OK you are hurting me, let go.” He continued, and she yelled for him to let go. Williams then forced her head to the left and right as Oakes cried in pain, the suit reads.
Eventually, Lt. John Sullivan brought out a safety helmet, and Williams head-butted Oakes three times, the suit reads.
“You like head-butting? How’s that you b****,” the suit quotes Williams saying.
After about an hour and 10 minutes, Oakes was removed from the restraint chair, and she said she would cooperate.
That evening, Sanabria called her union steward to say she had witnessed abuse. Three days later, her supervisor asked her about what she saw. The supervisor warned Sanabria that things were going to get bad for her, the suit reads.
In the following days, corrections officers downplayed the incident. They told Sanabria not to include Williams in any report and accused her of targeting him because he is African-American.
They said Oakes, who was mentally challenged, would probably forget it. When Sanabria sat at a table in the employee cafeteria, her fellow corrections officers would get up and leave.
Her union representative wouldn’t fill out a grievance because he was friends with Williams and another officer who participated, Sgt. Carl Brown.
Dionne, then a captain, told her there would be an investigation with taped interviews, lie detector tests and terminations. None of that happened, Sanabria said.
“I do not believe he investigated the incident in an even-handed way,” she wrote in an affidavit.