Seven employees at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — six correctional officers and a nurse — have resigned from their corrections posts and face charges after an investigation found evidence they engaged in inappropriate relationships with inmates, including sex in one case.
The accusation of sexual misconduct in particular raises questions about how the criminal justice system investigates and responds to reports of sex between officers and those in law enforcement custody.
Under the federal government's Prison Rape Elimination Act, sex between a guard and an inmate is considered rape, even if both parties say they consent. But individual states don't always apply that designation in legal proceedings.
Despite a new provision passed last year in Louisiana which explicitly states that those in state custody, like inmates, cannot legally give consent, 45-year-old Denise Prevot, the corrections officer in this latest case who admitted to engaging in sex with an inmate, was arrested on malfeasance in office, not rape.
She was booked on a specific provision that defines sex between Department of Corrections officials and those in their custody as malfeasance in office. She's the only corrections employee among the seven facing accusations of sexual contact at this time.
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The malfeasance statute carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $10,000, but that law is separate from Louisiana laws governing rape, which can carry harsher sentences.
The new consent law passed last legislative session could give district attorneys more leeway to prosecute such cases as rape. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, says a person is incapable of giving sexual consent when "the person is under arrest or otherwise in the actual custody of a police officer or other law enforcement official." Correctional officers in Louisiana are considered law enforcement agents.
Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, said Friday that while the provision was written to protect those under arrest, it is also relevant in cases of sexual acts in prison.
"I think that logic still holds with prisoners and prison guards as well," Morrell said. "If you're in there, there is a discrepancy between power and choice. … Either way, you've got someone in a position of power and someone in a compromised position."
West Feliciana District Attorney Sam D'Aquilla, whose jurisdiction includes Angola, agreed with Morrell. After looking at the new statute on consent, he said he will consider rape charges in addition to the malfeasance charges when prosecuting such cases. But he noted that deciding which charges are best will come down to the evidence and facts of each case.
D'Aquilla also noted how relationships between guards and inmates have been an ongoing issue at Angola for years, an issue he said is exacerbated by low salaries for correctional officers, high turnover and staffing shortages. The prison also remains under an FBI probe for misconduct, which has already led D'Aquilla to level an abuse-of-office charge against a former assistant warden accused of facilitating an underground market for contraband.
The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed in 2003 and dictates the process for prisons to investigate and report instances of sex among inmates or between inmates and prison employees. States can lose some of their federal prison grant funding if they don't adhere to the guidelines.
The most recent data collected and reported by the Bureau of Justice statistics shows that about 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates surveyed in 2011 and 2012 reported having experienced some type of sexual victimization. About half of the victims reported assaults perpetrated by prison staff.
Corrections officials noted that Louisiana is not alone in facing this issue within its prisons.
Cases of sexual contact between inmates and guards have surfaced across the country and often present a unique challenge for prosecutors, which can result in guards facing few consequences for the alleged missteps.
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"Notwithstanding passage of the (Prison Rape Elimination Act), there is clear belief, echoed by correctional leaders, that prosecutors are reluctant at best, and unwilling at worst, to prosecute cases of sexual violence in correctional settings," researchers wrote in a 2008 report examining how these cases are treated in the criminal justice system. The report mentions unsympathetic victims as one of the main reasons for that reluctance.
But it also notes improvements have been made in recent years; a few decades ago, most states didn't have laws forbidding those sexual encounters.
Prevot, a corrections officer since June 2017 who lives in Mansura, was booked into the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center on felony malfeasance, sexual misconduct prohibited.
The others face less serious accusations of corresponding with inmates, which could range from electronic communication via cell phone or email to written letters, corrections officials said. All correspondence between inmates and guards is explicitly prohibited under corrections policy about inappropriate relationships with inmates.
Deidra Whittaker, 47, of St. Francisville, and Alexis McGraw, 35, of Clayton, were both arrested on malfeasance in office, each accused of having an inappropriate relationship with an inmate. Whittaker had been a corrections officer since July; McGraw since November 2016.
Myron Cage, 21, of Ferriday, is accused of conspiring with inmates and their relatives to smuggle contraband into the prison. Cage, a corrections officer since November 2018, was booked on malfeasance in office.
Sarah Veals, 62, of Woodville, Mississippi; Precious Fitzgerald, 25, of Natchez, Mississippi; and Toni Williams, 48, of St. Francisville, are all also accused of having an inappropriate relationship with an inmate, but have not been arrested. Veals and Fitzgerald were corrections officers, Veals since January 2018, Fitzgerald since October 2017. Williams was a nurse at the state prison since July 2017.
The West Feliciana Sheriff's Office had arrested four of the seven by Friday evening, but said all are expected to be arrested.
Corrections officials also said the inmates involved in the recent accusations have been placed in administrative segregation, a highly restrictive detention setting, pending the outcome of investigations into whether they've violated prison rules, which could include possession of contraband and improper correspondence with guards.
"We will continue to crack down on those who choose to betray the public trust and will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law," said state Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc. "This is not a reflection of the many hard-working men and women in our department who are dedicated to keeping our prisons and our public safe."
These arrests come the same week a high-ranking corrections officer at Angola, Maj. Christopher James, was arrested in Mississippi by the FBI after he was indicted on conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud — federal charges that stem from James' other job at the Wilkinson County Sheriff's Department in Mississippi. His indictment, which was first reported by WBRZ, says James wrote a false police report in 2017 that an ATV had been stolen, which allowed his acquaintance to file for insurance funds on the ATV, though it actually remained on their property.
James was arrested Wednesday, and Pastorick said he was placed on paid administrative leave by the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Pastorick noted James' arrest has nothing to do with his work at Angola.