Melissa Houghlin (left) recounts her experience at the Clark County Jail along with her attorneys, who filed a federal class action lawsuit on Tuesday
Melissa Houghlin (left) of Jeffersonville, Ind. recounts her experience at the Clark County Jail in 2014 along with her attorneys, who filed a federal class-action lawsuit on Tuesday. | Photo by Joe Sonka.

A federal class-action lawsuit was filed in Southern Indiana on Tuesday against Clark County’s government and last two sheriffs, alleging a pattern of cruel and unusual punishment toward female inmates at the county jail due to overcrowding and failing to provide adequate feminine hygiene products to those who are menstruating.

The lawsuit was filed by Jeffersonville, Ind. resident Melissa Houghlin, who along with her attorneys Laura Landenwich and Dan Canon of Clay Daniel Walton & Adams recounted for reporters on Tuesday her experience of incarceration in the Clark County Jail for four days during 2014. Houghlin alleges that she began menstruating the morning after being arrested and placed in the jail’s holding tank, but was repeatedly denied any feminine hygiene products by the jail staff for over 36 hours as she bled through her clothes and onto the floor of the 10-by-12-foot cell, which was shared by another 10 to 12 women.

Houghlin’s complaint alleges that other female inmates have been treated in a similar manner at the jail over the past two years, as menstruating women are regularly denied access to feminine hygiene products, clean clothing and showers, and forced into an overcrowded cell for lengthy periods with only a concrete bench or floor without mats on which to sleep.

The complaint goes on to allege that the jail has no training or policy on providing such materials to female inmates and has purchased only 26 pairs of women’s undergarments and zero feminine hygiene products over the past two years — though the jail never had fewer than 80 female inmates a day over a three-year period. While the facility claims to rely on donations of feminine hygiene products, Landenwich said their open records requests did not uncover any evidence of the jail receiving any of those items.

Landenwich told reporters that such deprivations for female detainees “have amounted to what we believe are unconstitutional, inhumane conditions.” The lawsuit seeks certification for class-action status to include other women at the jail over the past two years and punitive damages for being subject to cruel and unusual punishment and a reckless disregard or deliberate indifference to her rights.

“This kind of treatment of women in our society is unconscionable and unconstitutional,” said Landenwich. “So therefore we have filed suit asking that the practice cease and also seeking class certification for all of the other women at the jail who we believe also suffered through the same sorts of humiliating and degrading conditions of confinement.”

Through tears, Houghlin said she filed the lawsuit “to make sure that this won’t ever happen again to another female, and that justice be served.”

Houghlin alleges that when she and other inmates asked guards for feminine hygiene products, they were told to shut up and sit down. She eventually was given one sanitary napkin and a jumpsuit — forced to wear her blood-soaked underwear — until a psychologist witnessed the scene in the holding tank and told jail officials to clean up the cell. After only receiving three sanitary napkins and one tampon over four days, Houghlin was forced to appear in court wearing a bloodstained jumpsuit.

“There wasn’t enough room for anyone to lay down, we were all cramped,” said Houghlin, through tears. “The smell and the conditions of the cell was horrific… and to have to sit for 36 hours and be put through this, I’m mentally distraught over it. And like I said, I don’t want this to ever happen to another female ever again.”

Current Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as is former Sheriff Danny Rodden, who was still in office at the time after being indicted in a prostitution scandal — a case in which he eventually pleaded guilty to two felony counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

The Clark County Jail is where the recent A&E television show “60 Days In” is filmed, where volunteers are followed as they go undercover as inmates.

The lawsuit states that the alleged abuses of Houghlin “were part of a continuing pattern of misconduct” by jail officials, whose practices “constitute an arbitrary, conscience-shocking use of government power.” Landenwich said problems at the jail have been well-documented, describing it as “plagued by poor management, inefficiency, overcrowding and corruption from the top down.”

Landenwich said they already have been contacted by several women who faced similar treatment at the Clark County facility, and she praised Houghlin for her courage in coming forward to put such alleged practices to an end.

“This is very embarrassing and sensitive material, so a lot of people haven’t been willing to be the face that gives a voice to these women who are sitting in these cells,” said Landenwich. “Melissa has had the strength and the courage to come here publicly and say that this happened to her and it was wrong, so I applaud her for having that courage.”

The allegations in the complaint only take into account the viewpoints of the plaintiffs in the case.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]