Fountain, a single mom with three kids, was still a probationary officer when she was summoned to the prison control center, where a gathered group of supervisors instructed her to climb on top of a desk, reach up to a cupboard, and retrieve an item.
As she later learned from female colleagues at Straits Correctional Facility, near Kincheloe in the Upper Peninsula, "after you left, they would all rate your butt."
Fountain was fired in 2010 after complaining about sexual harassment she said left her at increasing fear for her safety, such as the night she said she was sent alone to supervise a crew of six prisoners — all carrying shovels and ice picks — assigned the previously unheard of task of shoveling the big yard.
Generally, "I wasn't afraid of the inmates; I was afraid of the people I worked with," she told the Free Press.
Fountain's tale of harassment and retaliation is corroborated by both male and female coworkers and at least one supervisor, but her lawsuit was dismissed by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2017.
As Fountain's case demonstrates, proving discriminatory harassment inside the Corrections Department is never a slam dunk.
"These cases are hard to win," said Deborah Gordon, a Bloomfield Hills employment attorney who has successfully sued the department.
"This is totally a closed department" in which officers "are trained to and spend their days controlling other human beings," Gordon said. When retaliation gets meted out in the form of discipline against someone complaining about sexual harassment, it can result in a work record that hurts credibility in a court of law.
Jay Zelenock, a Traverse City attorney who represented Fountain, said to win her case it wasn't enough for Fountain to show the state fired her when it shouldn't have. Fountain had to show the state had an unlawful and discriminatory intent when it did so, and that's not easy, he said.
Other Corrections Department examples showing the difficulty of winning sexual harassment cases include:
A 1997 sexual assault of a female corrections officer at a Jackson prison resulted in a fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct conviction for Sgt. Burnie Stephens. Evidence showed another supervisor, Sgt. Daryl Terry, facilitated the assault by trying to make sure the woman would be left alone with Stephens, though he said he had no idea an assault was planned. Stephens and Terry were both fired,for inhumane treatment of a fellow employee and conduct unbecoming an officer. But so was the victim, for absenteeism, when she was unable to return to work. When the woman sued, saying the department should have acted sooner, based on seven previous complaints of misconduct by Stephens and Terry, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against her. In a 2003 opinion dismissing the case, the three-judge panel said that aside from a 1994 complaint that was not upheld, Stephens had not been reported for improper conduct since 1991. Stephens said Thursday he maintains his innocence and received an unfair trial.
Kimberly Gray, a former corrections officer at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, says her problems began when she resisted a sexual proposition from a supervisor in 2013. Gray said she'd been temporarily placed in a counselor's job she was qualified for and wanted to keep, but a supervisor "tried to let me know ... 'you have this job, and if you want to keep it, what are you going to do for me?' " Gray told the Free Press. Gray was fired in 2016 after disciplinary actions against her that she believes were retaliatory. She filed a lawsuit in Washtenaw County Circuit Court, soon withdrew it, and is still discussing possible legal action with an attorney.
In 1994, civil service Hearing Officer Louise Hodgson overturned a 10-day suspension the department handed Capt. David Bussell of Carson City Correctional Facility after three female corrections officers — including the prison's sexual harassment counselor — accused him of making sexually suggestive comments that made them feel uncomfortable and degraded. All three "shared a fear of confronting him or filing a complaint against him because they were afraid of losing their jobs," the department said. Hodgson restored 10 days pay for Bussell, ruling that similarities in the three women's stories smacked of "complicity."
In 1998, civil service Hearing Officer Ruth Kahn overturned the department's demotion to sergeant of Lt. Roger Marriott, who had told a female officer that since her husband, who also worked at the prison, was off the next day, they should go out for drinks. The officer testified that after she angrily declined, Marriott changed her work assignment — something he said he didn't recall, but didn't deny. The officer also complained about unnecessary visits by Marriott to her work area. Kahn ruled the female officer overreacted to the invitation for drinks and what she determined was Marriott, who later twice apologized, "raising the possibility of a changed (work) assignment" for her. "It was not unreasonable for (the officer) to view his statement as constituting retaliation, but she vastly exaggerated the message," Kahn wrote. Instead of a demotion, Kahn ordered a 10-day suspension for Marriott.
In addition to the "butt check" ritual for female recruits, Fountain, who worked at what is now part of Chippewa Correctional Facility, says she endured love letters and sexual propositions from a sergeant, having her shirt torn open in front of inmates by a fellow officer, and a captain's refrains of, "This is exactly why we don't want women working here," whenever there was trouble on her shift.
Fountain, who court records show was considered a competent and responsible officer even by her alleged tormentors, was ultimately fired for communicating with a parolee who grew up in her hometown and knew her son and whom she sponsored for Alcoholics Anonymous.
In 2011, Fountain sued the department and her alleged harassers, Sgt. Ed O'Dell and Capt. — and later Inspector — Gerald Casey for sex discrimination and harassment.
But the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled it was not O'Dell or Casey, but Kathy Warner, a Corrections Department official in Lansing, who made the ultimate decision to fire Fountain. She couldn't show, the court said, that the decision was made based on her gender or Warner having a bias against her. The Michigan Supreme Court declined to take the case in 2017.
Fountain argued there would have been no decision for Warner to make if not for a series of bogus investigations and selective enforcement of work rules, headed up by Casey.
She testified, with corroboration from her former supervisor, Capt. Bonnie Barnes, that she filed the required paperwork disclosing she knew the parolee she communicated with when he got locked up, but the department said she was required to report the relationship again, once he was paroled.
"Our position is, you're probably aware of that," said Zelenock, who maintains other employees were not required to file duplicate reports in similar circumstances.
Fountain submitted evidence that at least four other corrections officers were not fired for violating the same rule against overfamiliarity. Those four included two women: One received a foot rub from a prisoner and the other carried on a romantic relationship with a parolee.
Fountain says she believes her problems started soon after she was hired when Casey, O'Dell's friend and supervisor who she said would later send her with the crew of prisoners to shovel the big yard, asked her on a date and she politely declined.
Fountain says O'Dell and Casey, both now retired, were present for the "butt check." O'Dell, who admitted under oath to telling another female corrections officer she needed a spanking, wrote Fountain love letters, exposed himself to her at work and asked her to perform a sexual act, according to allegations in court records. When Fountain came to work with a sore on her lip, he told her he had some "good Irish cream" that would heal it, she alleges.
O'Dell, who testified in a deposition his spanking comment was the only sexually inappropriate comment he made at work, could not be reached for comment. Casey, who testified he never made sexually harassing remarks or other sexual remarks, told the Free Press that Fountain is a liar and a disgruntled employee and he denies her allegations.
Fountain said it was another officer who one day tore her shirt open in front of inmates, saying he wanted to see if her breasts "were real." Fountain, who was wearing a camisole underneath, said she asked Casey for permission to go home and change, but he instructed her to put a sweater over her torn shirt, despite sweltering heat, and repeated his statement about women not belonging inside a prison for men.
A friend helped Fountain get moved to midnights, where Barnes — a no-nonsense officer with a reputation for protecting women from harassment — was in charge.
Things calmed down for several years, but friends of Casey and O'Dell would regularly remind Fountain that as soon as Barnes retired, she would be gone, too, she said.
After she'd been working midnights for about a year, her union president came to her house and said other women were also being harassed and asked Fountain for her paperwork so he could put together a sexual harassment complaint against O'Dell and Casey, she said.
"I had all of the love letters," and turned them over, along with written accounts of "everything that they did to me," she said. "He was going to make copies and bring it back to me." The union president, Jerald (Jake) Campbell, later said he misplaced her papers. Fountain believes he turned them over to O'Dell and Casey for destruction.
Campbell, who retired in 2012, did not return a phone message.
O'Dell admitted in a deposition that at work he told another female officer, Celeste Nichols, that she needed to be spanked.
"When I first hired in, he told me that he was going to bend me over a desk and spank me," Nichols, who declined comment, testified about O'Dell in a deposition.
Another time, when they were patrolling the perimeter in a state vehicle, O'Dell tried to get her to perform a sex act, said Nichols, who also testified about O'Dell and Casey being involved in "butt checks" on female officers and Casey frequently expressing his belief that women shouldn't work in state prisons.
Casey initiated bogus investigations targeting Fountain, partly because he didn't think women should be working in prisons and because "he sees us as a sexual being more than a person," Nichols testified.
When Nichols filed a sexual harassment complaint against O'Dell, they "assured me that it wasn't going to happen again, that it was handled in-house," Nichols testified. O'Dell would be taken off the night shift she worked, "so that it wouldn't be an issue," she said.
Barnes retired in 2008, a year before Fountain finally filed paperwork on the sexual harassment she had complained about for years. Barnes told the Free Press many of the women at Straits had transferred to her shift for protection, and she had groomed another female captain to take her place. Unfortunately, that officer was involved in a car accident that prevented her from replacing Barnes, and that's when things went south for Fountain, she said.
Once Barnes left, "I couldn't walk across the yard sideways and I was being investigated for something," Fountain said.
Casey handled the investigations, which first had to be authorized by the warden.
Barnes said in an affidavit that Fountain was an outstanding and highly professional officer. Casey made inappropriate actions toward and comments about females and "felt he would get away with any misconduct toward female staff due to his close personal relationships with his supervisors," many of whom had been Casey's drinking buddies, she said.
"While some advances have been made in the MDOC, I know staff who have been wary of pursuing harassment complaints, believing to do so could cause retaliation and career suicide," said Barnes, who worked 28 years for the department.
Fountain found six .22-caliber shells hidden inside the prison kitchen, turned them in, and was then investigated for suspected smuggling, with the Michigan State Police even sent on a fruitless search of her home. In another instance, she found a baggie with traces of marijuana inside it in a prison visiting room and was investigated for smuggling that, too. She was cleared in both cases.
"Male officers find something — they're heroes," Zelenock said. "Staci finds something, they try to pursue her for it."
Corrections Officer John Pierce, who also served as the prison's sexual harassment counselor, testified in a deposition that Fountain did a good job, but confirmed there was "a lot of talk" about Fountain getting fired once Barnes retired.
Ted Witek, a former corrections officer at Straits who worked with Fountain until he retired in 2008, said he believes she was retaliated against for complaining about harassment.
"As far as I'm concerned, Staci wasn't hard to look at," and "the top brass, they were chasing all the women," Witek said. "I think she didn't want to play ball with them."
Witek was one of several officers present when the baggie containing trace amounts of marijuana was discovered. He said Fountain clearly did nothing wrong and he couldn't understand why she was investigated and nobody else was.
"She was a good worker," Witek said. "You've got maybe a fight or something, you can count on Staci."
Retired corrections officer Kayle Mahar, 59, of St. Johns used to work with Fountain at Straits.
With Fountain, "it was harassment from all points," said Mahar, who retired in 2015 from what by then was the combined Chippewa Correctional Facility
"She would go into a hearing and be exonerated, and they would be waiting for her in the lobby with another charge."
Mahar sent Fountain to search the kitchen the night she found the 22.-caliber ammunition. "They put her on trial for that," he said. "It was insane."
Mahar said he heard O'Dell's "Irish cream" comment and many other inappropriate remarks and recalls a time O'Dell lost his prison keys and an inmate picked them up and gave them to Mahar. O'Dell, who admitted to the lost keys in his own deposition, lost three days of leave time, but it would have been a firing offense for someone like Fountain, Mahar said.
"These people would do this because they were in the old boys network," he said. "You can't fight that."