A female inmate at the McPherson Unit is suing former chaplain Kenneth L. Dewitt — who is currently serving a five-year sentence at the Ouachita River Unit after pleading guilty to multiple charges of sexual assault of prisoners — along with a number of Arkansas prison officials. In a federal civil rights complaint filed Sept. 7, inmate Carolyn Arnett claims she was sexually assaulted once or twice a week for four years in a systematic process enabled by multiple Arkansas Department of Correction officials.
The suit names current ADC Director Wendy Kelley, who, the inmate’s lawyer Mike Laux said, allowed over many years “rampant institutional failures, as well as a culture of sexual and physical abuse at McPherson … despite clear notice to those in positions of authority within the ADC.”
The McPherson Unit in Newport is also the focus of an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of inmates.
Arnett, 42, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a 1997 capital murder.
WARNING: The following contains descriptions of sexual assault
Arnett claims that after becoming a leader in DeWitt’s faith-based Principles and Applications for Life program in 2010, she would be summoned “once a week” to Dewitt’s office until June 2012 — and then “twice a week” from June 2012 to September 2014 — “where [Dewitt] would proceed to sexually assault her.”
In another lawsuit, Leticia Villarreal, 42, a Mexican national who was deported to Mexico after her release from McPherson Unit in 2015, made claims of similar behavior in which she was told to report to Dewitt’s office regularly.
Arnett’s suit also etches out a dark story of a Christianity-based program that taught women to submit to the authority of males and God in order to find forgiveness and hope in prison. Following the teachings of conservative Christian minister Bill Gothard — who, according to the suit “taught, among other things, that sex is a male birthright because males are the head of the household and in a natural position of authority” — PAL taught “the submission of female inmates to male authority, particularly [Dewitt’s] authority.”
(UPDATE 1:17 p.m.) Gothard has also been mired in accusations of sexual assault since 2014 and famously was a counselor to the Duggar family, of TLC fame. Here is an inside look at Gothard’s philosophy and work with the Duggars.
The program, the suit claims, “used … dangerous religious teachings, along with a strident condemnation of homosexual relationships, to indoctrinate female PAL participants into what was essentially a cult, and to brainwash them in order to lessen their resistance to his improper sexual advances.”
The Arkansas Times reported on the PAL program in 2006 before allegations of sexual assault were made public. Here is a haunting quote from Arnett, taken at that time (my emphasis added):
“Whether I stay in here or not depends on God,” Arnett says. “My life is not mine anymore. Making my own decisions is what got me here … We serve a very big God. I’m learning to love Him. I was raised in church, but not until I got to prison did I learn what it really means. … If they [inmates] apply the principles they learn here, it will change their life. We’ll always be under authority one way or another.” (The need for obedience, for submitting to legitimate authority, Godly or earthly, is a big part of the PAL teaching.)
In 2003, the Department of Justice looked into the McPherson Unit and found inmates had “inadequate protection from physical harm and sexual misconduct,” according to the suit. Yet, language from the 2015 investigation announcement from the DOJ makes clear those changes were not made:
“The department has received numerous allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of prisoners by multiple members of McPherson Unit staff. Allegations include staff engaging in sexual intercourse and other sexual acts with prisoners; exchanging commissary money for sexual favors; and inappropriately watching prisoners while they shower or change clothes, commenting on their private parts and, at times, taking photos or video for reasons unrelated to correctional goals.”
Arnett lays out multiple claims of what ADC failed to do despite knowing what was occurring at McPherson:
*Up to 10 correctional officers (listed as John Does in the suit) facilitated Arnett going to Dewitt’s office, even after seeing her visibly upset or crying when leaving. One officer “was in close proximity to DEWITT’s office, and inadvertently observed DEWITT’s sexual abuse of Plaintiff, interrupting the criminal act, and causing DEWITT to quickly cover himself. Despite witnessing a clear instance of sexual abuse, JOHN DOE ONE did not address it, nor did he report it.”
*Kelley, as well as other officials, were aware of Dewitt’s male-dominated teachings.
*Kelley, as well as other officials, were aware of a previous accusation of sexual assault against Dewitt from 1999.
*Kelley, as well as other officials, were aware of an illicit relationship between Dewitt and Stacey Smith that began in 2003, while she was still an inmate at McPherson. Smith was given an early release in 2004 by Gov. Mike Huckabee and then became a state employee in 2004 for the prison system, eventually developing her own ministry called “Prison to Purpose,” which leaned on similar Christian teachings to Dewitt’s to help inmates, in 2006. Dewitt told other prisoners that he had helped facilitate the release “due to his closeness to God, as well as to Governor Huckabee.” Smith then, up until 2014, worked at McPherson and, by 2014, “began to openly talk about her improper relationship with [Dewitt]” and even “confronted” Arnett about Dewitt’s abuse, asking if it was true, and “instructed [Arnett] not to tell anyone about the abuse, and added that the Lord will forgive [Arnett].”