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New Lawsuit Claims Texas Prison Guards Sexually Assaulted Female Guard

Guards at the Mark Stiles Unit in Beaumont are alleged to have led the victim to a hallway where there were no security cameras.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court this month claims that several male Texas prison guards sexually assaulted a female corrections officer in a hallway that was known to be a blind spot for security cameras. In December 2017, according to the lawsuit, Tiffany Carver was standing at her assigned duty spot at the Mark W. Stiles Unit, a state prison in Beaumont, when her supervising officer and two other guards asked her to follow them.

As she followed the men, Carver asked numerous times why they wanted to speak with her, according to the lawsuit, but was told it was a “private matter.” Defendants Sgt. Rodrick Atwood and officers Herman Smith and Keith Watson allegedly led Carver down a food service hallway not covered by security cameras. Atwood, Carver’s supervisor, allegedly locked a door to the hallway; the lawsuit claims he then told her, “Carver, I’m tired of you always going around here teasing me. You’re going to give it up tonight!”

There, Carver alleges she was sexually assaulted by the three men, who unbuttoned her shirt and fondled her breasts, tried to unbutton her pants, and groped her, all while taunting her with vulgar comments like, “Why is it that you don’t want to fuck with us? You think you’re too good to get this dick?”

According to Carver’s lawsuit, the incident lasted seven to 10 minutes, and after she was let out of the room, the guards told her not to tell anyone “or else something bad would happen.”

Carver’s lawyer, Troy Pradia, told The Appeal that Carver reported the incident to her supervisor the next day. In March of this year, Atwood, Watson, and Smith were indicted for unlawful restraint of a public servant and official oppression by the Jefferson County district attorney’s office. Atwood received two years’ deferred adjudication after pleading guilty to official oppression; the other two cases are still pending. 

“It’s an unfortunate situation that shouldn’t occur in any workplace—and you’re talking about a jail that’s run by the state of Texas,” Pradia said. “If anyplace, you should be safe there.”

The lawsuit also claims that the assault happened in a workplace rife with inappropriate staff relationships. “Unbeknownst to Defendants TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] and the Unit Jail premises, female corrections officers were involved in inappropriate relationships with their superior Sergeants and officers. Defendants TDCJ and the Unit Jail allowed for these inappropriate relationships to form,” the lawsuit states. “Because of these relationships not only was the disgusting behavior being covered up but the female corrections officers were rapidly promoted to higher positions.”

Pradia said he interviewed other female correctional officers at Stiles while investigating Carver’s case, and they told him that sexual harassment was routine and that they were ignored when they filed grievances. 

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment on the pending litigation, but said, “TDCJ has a zero tolerance for any form of sexual misconduct.”

A Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2011-12, in which 149 prisoners at the Stiles Unit were anonymously surveyed about being sexually victimized by staff or other inmates, stated that Stiles had a high rate—7.8 percent—of sexual victimization between incarcerated people, roughly four times the national average. The report also stated that 6.2 percent of incarcerated people at the unit reported staff sexual misconduct, which the study defined as any willing or unwilling sexual contact between prisoners and staff; that number was three times the national average.

Jeremy Desel, TDCJ’s director of communications, told The Appeal in an email that the BJS statistics “do not in any way match with the departments own actual reports of cases to either the PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] Ombudsman or for investigation by the Office of Inspector General.”

Desel said the state’s statistics show that in 2018, the independent Office of the Inspector General received 312 reports from TDCJ prisons of sexual assault incidents between incarcerated people; 19 of those reports came from the Stiles Unit. Statewide that year, Desel said there were 52 alleged incidents of sexual assault and 47 alleged incidents of improper sexual activity with persons in custody by TDCJ staff; one report in each category came from Stiles. “Of the sexual assault allegations, zero were substantiated and 19 have ongoing investigations. Of the improper sexual activity claims, 10 were substantiated and 11 have ongoing investigations,” Desel said. 

Pradia said the inappropriate workplace culture at Stiles contributed to an unsafe environment for female corrections officers. “The atmosphere around the workplace is [as if] it’s OK to do this,” he said.

Pradia said Carver resigned after the 2017 incident and has not been able to work since. The lawsuit seeks damages of at least $2 million. “This has really been a traumatic experience for her,” Pradia said, “and she’s trying to get her life back together.”