The lawyer for a female state prisoner who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a prison chaplain announced Friday that a civil-rights lawsuit has been filed against the Department of Correction, the chaplain and other officials.
Carolyn Arnett, an inmate at the McPherson Unit, said in the lawsuit that department Director Wendy Kelley and other administrators allowed "rampant" institutional failures and a culture of sexual and physical abuse that enabled former prison chaplain Kenneth Dewitt to abuse several female inmates.
Dewitt, 68, pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual abuse in July 2016 in relation to assaults against Arnett and two other female inmates. He will likely spend five years in prison. He was sentenced to 10 years with five years suspended on each count, all to run concurrently. He is currently an inmate at the Ouachita River Unit. He was originally charged with 50 counts that carried a possible 500 years in prison.
Prison spokesman Solomon Graves declined to comment Friday, citing pending litigation.
"Filing the lawsuit is her constitutional right to do so," said Mike Laux, Arnett's attorney. "What it boils down to is Carolyn is a very bighearted person. She is aware of the culture that exists out there. She wants to bring attention to what's going on out there."
Arnett is the second inmate to file suit against Dewitt and prison officials. Former inmate Leticia Villarreal claimed in her November legal plea that she was raped 72 times -- every Monday for 18 months -- by the chaplain.
In the latest lawsuit, Arnett said she worked with Dewitt as a participant in the prison ministry program Principles and Applications for Life program, which Dewitt founded in 1998.
Arnett viewed Dewitt as a "father figure" whom she revered and trusted, the lawsuit said. Dewitt began the abuse by asking Arnett inappropriate sexual questions and it progressed to the former chaplain forcing her to perform oral sex on him. Dewitt ordered her to report to his office once a week where he would sexually assault her.
Other female inmates have previously told investigators that Dewitt had a schedule of sex with one female prisoner Sunday, another Monday, and then another Wednesday.
Dewitt followed and executed the teachings of Bill Gothard, an nationally known evangelical minister from Illinois who believes that "sex is a male birthright because males are the head of the household and in a natural position of authority," according to the lawsuit.
The former chaplain, who had a close relationship with Gothard, indoctrinated the program's female participants into "what was essentially a cult, and to brainwash them in order to lessen their resistance to his improper sexual advances," the lawsuit said.
In the summer of 2016, the U.S. Justice Department began an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment, as well as mistreatment of transgender women at the McPherson Unit.
The federal agency received "numerous allegations" concerning multiple McPherson Unit staff members engaging in intercourse and other sexual acts with prisoners, according to a Justice Department news release. Other allegations included exchanging commissary money for sexual favors; inappropriately watching prisoners while they showered or changed clothes; and staff members taking photos or video for "reasons unrelated to correctional goals."
The investigation is ongoing.
Arnett's lawsuit said Kelley and former prison directors and McPherson Unit officials were aware of the "pattern of pervasive sexual misconduct at McPherson" for years.
"We are interested not only in bringing attention to Carolyn's abuse, but to other victims as well," Laux said.
Arnett has been in prison since 1999 and is serving a life-without-parole sentence for being an accomplice in the 1997 robbery and shooting deaths of two men in Paragould.
"We can talk about what they [inmates] did to get there, but these are human beings and they are to be respected as human beings," Laux said. "Some of the indignities that she suffered ... she doesn't want it to happen to anybody else and she wants to put an end to it."
State Desk on 09/09/2017
Print Headline: Inmate sues over abuse at lockup