Authority Problem

Guards are finding romance at the city's women's prison. That's not a good thing.

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At the Northeast Pre-Release Center, the women's prison on East 30th Street, she is referred to as inmate 35270. But in this courtroom, as she tearfully recounts how she told her mother that she was raped by a corrections officer, she is known as Linda Booker.

It happened in the early morning hours of October 8, 2001, she testified. Booker was confined to "the hole" for stabbing her roommate with a pen. The guard was William Wheeler, a bald, thick-bodied man pulling overtime that night, as he often did.

Wheeler checked on her shortly after starting his shift at 10 p.m. "Tonight I'm going to get some pussy," Booker claims he told her.

"Stop tripping," she says she replied.

Wheeler often made comments like that, Booker testified. He sometimes asked her to show him her pretty little dimples, and joked that they were going to get married when she got out. Booker paid him no mind.

Later that night, she awoke to the sound of a door opening. She says she saw Wheeler standing over her with his penis out.

"Booker! Booker! I told you I was gonna get some pussy tonight," Wheeler allegedly said.

She tried to resist, she testified, but he was too strong. The incident was mercifully short. He left her with semen running down her leg.

Wheeler came back a short time later, holding a can of soda, Booker claims. Wheeler said that an old-timer once told him that if a woman shook up a can and let the carbonated soda gush into her vagina, it would wash out the sperm. He left her alone to do the job.

She didn't bother with the soda. It sounded like an urban myth. Instead, she poured the drink down the toilet and took a shower.

She got out of the hole three days later and told a sergeant what happened. He did nothing, she claims. Then she called her mother in Selma, Alabama. "I wanted her to come and help me," she tearfully testified. Her mother promised to send a lawyer.

Later that month, Booker, who is imprisoned for attempted assault, was on her way to get medication for depression when she ran into Wheeler. He told her that he heard she had told someone about the incident, she says. They argued, and he slapped her.

Soon after, prison chaplain Michaela Brown found Booker standing outside her office, looking anxious. Booker attended church and sang in the prison choir, so she trusted the chaplain. She told Brown about the incident in "the hole."

Brown took her to a shift commander's office to make a report. The next day, Booker talked to the warden. He called in the State Highway Patrol.

Before it was over, investigators would discover another alleged victim. Tawana Thomas, imprisoned for assault and robbery, claimed she had sex with Wheeler four times. She thought she was in love with him.

Although the sex was supposedly consensual, in Ohio it's considered sexual battery, a third-degree felony, when a guard has sex with an inmate. Wheeler was charged with the sexual battery of both Booker and Thomas.

Wheeler claims both women are lying: The incidents never happened. In court, his flamboyant attorney, James Willis, attacked the women's credibility, casting them as violent, psychologically disturbed criminals. Several guards took the stand to support that characterization.

Assistant Prosecutor Suzie Demosthenes used their words against Wheeler in her closing argument. She said inmates are vulnerable to abuse precisely because people are reluctant to believe them. "It makes them the perfect prey," she said.

This case, she told the jury, was about more than proving that prison guards aren't above the law. It was also about proving that inmates aren't beneath it.

From the outside, the fenced-in complex could easily be mistaken for a well-secured housing development. A man once came to the prison's front desk asking to see the apartment manager.

There's a reason the Northeast Pre-Release Center doesn't look like a prison: It wasn't meant to be one. It was designed as a furlough center, where inmates would sleep at night while spending their days working or getting educated in the surrounding community.

But by the time the facility opened in 1988, it had become a pre-release center, where inmates stayed when they were within six months of release.

Two years later, Northeast's use changed again when it was converted to a full-fledged women's prison. It now houses 629 inmates, overseen by a staff of 173, including 84 in security.

Officials have periodically considered dropping "pre-release" from the center's name, but the idea was always swept aside for fear that the surrounding community would object to a prison in the neighborhood, says spokeswoman Valerie Aden. So it remains a pre-release center, in name only. Some inmates have been there for as long as eight years.

Although the outside suggests calm, the inside roils with a conflict between guards and administrators that was spurred by a crackdown on officers having sex with inmates. Since 1997, at least 13 employees have been accused of having relationships with inmates. Eight were criminally charged. A ninth indictment is expected soon.

Of the seven cases decided before Wheeler's trial in February, five ended with the officer being found guilty.

In 1997, Luis Medina was accused of having sex with an inmate about 50 times during an 18-month relationship. He was charged with sexual battery, but pleaded down and was sentenced to 30 days.

Two years later, guard George Joseph was accused of having sex with an inmate four times. He was charged with sexual battery, but pleaded down and was sentenced to 17 months.

The problem isn't confined to the rank and file. In 1999, Captain Edward Heyward was also accused of having sex with an inmate. A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to one year in prison.

For a guard to be charged, the victim must cooperate, and the women are often reluctant to talk -- especially if the relationship was consensual, prison administrators say. Yet officers can still be fired or forced to resign.

One officer quit after he was caught on a surveillance video kissing an inmate. Another was fired after administrators discovered that an ex-inmate had moved in with him.

Some of this is to be expected. Prisons can't be particularly choosy about whom they hire. The starting salary is $29,600 -- not a lot, considering that the work is dangerous and the environment ugly. Moreover, inmates are often career manipulators quite skilled at working the system. And just as in any other workplace, romance is bound to kindle.

Still, the problems at Northeast rise above the norm. Compared to other women's prisons in the state, over the past five years it disciplined twice as many employees for having relationships with inmates. To put this in perpective, the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville has more than twice as many inmates and employees as Northeast, yet only half as many guards have either quit or been fired.

Northeast Warden Bennie Kelly says the numbers reflect his "proactive" approach to stopping sexual abuse by guards. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction backs his assertion. But, adds Kelly, "It is something that concerns me very much, and I feel that we can be criticized by others, 'cause it is happening -- even though we take an aggressive approach to try to stop it."

Kelly puts some of the blame on the facility. Since it was built as a furlough center, it's smaller than a conventional prison, and inmates go from one building to another for programs. "It wasn't designed for people to be housed 24-7," Kelly says. "The inmates are staying for a length of time that allows the staff to become too complacent and too familiar with the inmates."

But he also admits there's major friction between management and employees. "There's a code of silence with the union."

Asked if he believes corrections officers cover up for each other's crimes, he offers a carefully worded response: "I do believe that they support each other."

When William Wheeler took the stand in his own defense, his lawyer sought to portray him as a compassionate family man. Wheeler spoke of being married, with six children.

But under cross-examination, a more combative side emerged. He bristled as the prosecutor needled him about his apparent lapses from prison policy on the night he allegedly raped Booker, and Wheeler made it clear that he felt unjustly persecuted by the administration.

"So it's a conspiracy to get you?" Assistant Prosecutor Demosthenes asked.

"A conspiracy to get officers, period," Wheeler spat.

He's not alone in that belief. It was hard to miss the tension between administrators and guards during Wheeler's trial. More than half a dozen officers filled the back of the courtroom, clapping at times when the judge reprimanded Demosthenes and quietly cheering when Wheeler's attorney made a point.

During breaks in the proceedings, officers loudly denounced the warden and his investigator, Curtis Patrick. The guards complained that their bosses were keeping them from doing their jobs properly and suggested that the stress might drive one of them to violence.

"Officers are afraid to make rounds," says a guard. "They take innocent things you do normally, and they twist it to make it look like you raped a girl."

Administrators were no less adversarial. Two sat behind the prosecutor, passing notes to help her. Demosthenes even apologized to the jury, saying she hadn't seen such shameless note-passing since her school days.

"They went above and beyond what they're supposed to do," one guard said. "They've become part of the prosecution's team."

After overhearing officers lob accusations in the hall outside the courtroom, investigator Patrick threatened to sue anyone who besmirched his name. He also covertly taped their conversations for use in other investigations.

"I was threatened," Patrick later said. "I was told if he went to jail, I would be murdered."

About the only issue administrators and guards seem to agree on is that this conflict goes far beyond a typical labor dispute.

Guards allege that administrators use criminal prosecutions as a stick to reinforce their control over them. "It's a power thing," one guard says. "They see this as a contest between them and the union, and they want to show they're in charge. Wheeler was an example."

Although the claim may sound like an X-Files episode, guards point to the indictments of Sean Bannerman and Earl Morris. In 2000, administrators accused Bannerman of having consensual sex with two inmates. Morris allegedly acted as a look-out and threatened one of the inmates with death if she told anyone.

Arnold Frye, a veteran guard with a law degree, was president of the union chapter at the time and came to the officers' aid. But administrators accused him of intimidating a witness and put him on leave for three months. "I was inflamed at the time," Frye says. "I couldn't believe it."

Frye was back at work by the time Bannerman's case went to trial, and he dug up a logbook that showed Bannerman was with another officer when one of the sexual encounters supposedly took place. Partly on that evidence, Bannerman was found not guilty on all counts. Prosecutors subsequently dropped charges against Morris.

Though Bannerman escaped a prison sentence, he says the allegations cost him his second job as a security guard. "They play with people's lives like it's a game," he says.

Bannerman now works away from inmates in the prison's control center. Morris has left the institution altogether and works as a Cleveland cop.

But theirs are not isolated cases. Just weeks before Wheeler went to trial, guard Johnny Burtin was found not guilty of sexual battery. Burtin was accused of having sex with an inmate in his office on six separate occasions. Yet the victim's credibility evaporated when Burtin's lawyer produced a letter from her, asking another inmate to lie by claiming she saw the two having sex.

Guards say the cases show that administrators are all too willing to believe an inmate over an officer.

"They care more about the prisoners than they do the employees," says Donna Jackson, president of the guards' local. "We're risking our lives every day, and all we get is kicked in the butt, dragged into court on an inmate's word."

As officers point out, inmates have motive to lie. They may be seeking revenge against an officer who disciplined them. They may also be hoping to score on a civil suit. Booker, the inmate allegedly raped by Wheeler, has a lawsuit pending against him for $50,000.

"These inmates only make $18 to $21 a month," one officer says. "This is a big payday for them."

Warden Kelly says criminal charges aren't filed unless an inmate passes a lie detector test. And even if an allegation cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, it still may have merit, Kelly adds.

Guard Jerome Harris was fired in 1998, after administrators found his fingerprints on several romantic greeting cards mailed to an inmate, Kelly says. Harris was reinstated three years later, through the union grievance process. But in January, he was accused of having sex with another inmate. He was put on administrative leave and later fired. Harris says he is innocent, but he expects to be indicted.

Four years ago, the U.S. General Accounting Office released a report examining the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as systems in California, Texas, and Washington, D.C. It concluded that none "had readily available, comprehensive data or reports on the number, nature, and outcomes of staff-on-inmate sexual misconduct allegations."

The report touched off a flurry of legislative action. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) proposed a bill to block funding to prisons that didn't submit reports designed to detect harassment of women inmates. Cleveland Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones was a co-sponsor.

But the bill was soon abandoned in favor of more high-profile concerns, such as the right of prisoners to have abortions.

One reason the issue may have lost its spark is that the women being "victimized" didn't seem to recognize it as a problem. As the GAO noted, prison officials reported that "allegations involving rape and forced sexual assault were relatively rare." If sex was taking place, it was often consensual.

Shamira Lee, recently released after serving five years at ORW for robbery, says that, although she didn't have sex with guards, she sees nothing wrong with it. "You have no choice over who catches your eye, or who you fall in love with. You don't have a choice. You're a person."

Some inmates see sex as a way to secure favors, says Shara Abraham, an attorney with the Prison Reform Advocacy Center in Cincinnati. "One of the women at a halfway house said to me, 'Really, it's the women who are taking advantage of the men, because they're the ones who are getting something out of it.'"

In other cases, prison policy dissuades inmates from complaining. When a Northeast inmate makes an accusation against an officer, she is transferred to solitary confinement.

"When you see women around you getting punished for it -- and when you see the guards, at best, get administrative leave with pay -- there's really no reason to come forward," says Abraham.

Yet inmate advocates and guards agree that prison relationships can't be tolerated. For one, they pose serious security risks. And it can be argued that the power imbalance between guard and inmate makes truly consensual sex an impossibility.

Says David Singleton, executive director of the Prison Reform Advocacy Center: "The prospect of having sex with a guard or facing possible retaliation for failure to do so is no choice at all."

As Wheeler waited for the jury to return its verdict, guard Arnold Frye passed the time in the courtroom by demonstrating how to defend oneself from a shank. He took off his shoe and put it on his hand as a shield.

Wheeler said he could take care of himself if he were sentenced to prison.

"It's not what you say, it's what you do," Frye replied. "Remember what I told you about the shank? It's better to be caught with one than without one."

"I'm not worried about going to the penitentiary," Wheeler repeated.

"Let's not talk about this anymore," said Frye, getting the message. "Let's put this out of our minds."

They knew all too well what Wheeler would face in prison. Once word got out that he was a former guard, he'd be a prime target for rape and beatdowns, which made waiting for a verdict all the more anxiety-ridden.

At one point, the jury asked the judge to read them the definition of reasonable doubt. Wheeler and his supporters wondered whether it was a good sign or a bad one.

After two and a half days, the jury of five men and seven women reported back: They could not reach an agreement. Wheeler would have to be retried.

"It's always a victory when you're not convicted," he said. "I feel victory -- but a cheated victory. I want to clear my name."

He might have felt less vindicated if he had talked to the jury. On the Booker charge, they deadlocked with nine voting not guilty, two for guilty, and one undecided. But on the Thomas charges, the vote was three for not guilty, six for guilty, and three undecided.

"People figured that something had happened," said one juror. "But there wasn't enough hard evidence to say guilty."

It was a judgment that might be applied to most of Northeast's problems. When guards are accused of abuse, deciding who to trust is rarely easy.

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