By Christopher Zoukis
In a very unusual case, William Cordoba, 57, serving a life sentence at California’s San Quentin for second-degree murder and robbery convictions in 1981, has won more than $65,000 from a federal jury, which found he had been coerced into essentially becoming a female vocational instructor’s sex slave.
In May 2010, Cordoba was assigned as a clerk for vocational instructor Silvia Pulido, who taught janitorial vocational skills at the prison; they shared office space in a trailer. Cordoba said Pulido very quickly began acting flirtatious with him, directing him to “get closer.” One day later that same month, he alleged, she initiated physical contact with him. Three days later, she replaced the lock on the office door, telling Cordoba the new lock would prevent anyone from entering the office trailer while they were being intimate.
According to Cordoba, Pulido told him that if he did what she wanted and kept quiet about it, she had enough money — a state database showed she earned around $60,000 — to hire a lawyer to work on reducing Cordoba’s sentence. For months, the inmate said, Pulido coerced him into performed sexual acts in exchange for her promises to help him get legal help. He said when he eventually tried to break off the relationship, Pulido not only fired him from his clerk’s job but also reported him to prison officials, falsely accusing him of stalking her. That resulted in him being placed in solitary confinement for about nine months. As a result, Cordoba said he needed to get psychiatric therapy.
In a handwritten pro se lawsuit he filed in the federal court in Oakland in 2012, the inmate claimed sexual harassment by Pulido violated his civil rights and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The lawsuit named only Pulido, not the state corrections department, as a defendant. Through a private attorney, Pulido denied any relationship with Cordoba, and depicted him as delusional. In 2014, a prominent San Francisco litigation boutique was appointed to represent Cordoba pro bono. The court explained that while appointment of private counsel was generally not required in civil cases, the exceptional circumstances of Cordoba v. Pulido justified it.
During a six-day trial, both parties testified, as did other witnesses. Pulido’s lawyer in court called Cordoba delusional, but on Jan. 31 the eight-member jury found for Cordoba and awarded him $65,414. The jury’s award not only included $15,414 to compensate his actual damages, but also $50,000 in punitive damages, highly unusual in lawsuits brought by inmates.
A spokeswoman for the state Corrections and Rehabilitation Department would not comment on the verdict beyond saying the agency “takes all sexual harassment complaints seriously” and doesn’t condone harassment or other conduct threatening the safety and security of inmates or staff. Pulido, who has left the correction department but is now employed at a state hospital, had no comment. One of Cordoba’s lawyers observed that both women and men have the right to be free of sexual abuse, and “that doesn’t change because the person is incarcerated.”
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com