At least six employees of the Way Back House, including a program director and one other top manager, have been involved in improper relationships with offenders since 2000, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice reports.
Two of the staffers married the residents they supervised at the facility. Other employees ended up living with former Way Back House residents.
All six have been fired for the improper relationships. But none of the employees – all but one of whom are women – have been prosecuted, according to county records. Two additional Way Back House employees faced similar allegations and were later fired. State reports did not include details about those cases.
Texas law prohibits correctional staff or contract employees from having romantic and sexual liaisons with offenders in custody or under supervision. The charge of improper sexual activity with a person under supervision is a state jail felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Criminal justice experts say the intimate relationships erode discipline and morale in correctional facilities and can pose a security threat. In Tennessee, improper relationships between staff and inmates led to two escapes in 2004, one of which ended with the death of a guard.
The Way Back House's former program director, Lisa Bertelsen, is the highest-ranking employee to become ensnared in an investigation about a relationship with a resident at the small facility off Stemmons Freeway near downtown Dallas.
The Way Back House occupies an area of Dallas County's Decker overflow jail that was once the cabana of a posh hotel that hosted the Beatles during their 1964 tour. Dallas County has leased the building to the nonprofit since 1997. It is one of seven halfway houses that contract with the state to house prison parolees. The Way Back House's contract, awarded in 1996, is worth almost $2 million a year.
The illegal relationships are part of a nationwide problem in prisons and jails that the federal government began tracking in 2004 as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.
The unions are termed staff sexual misconduct and can be romantic in nature. But under the law, inmates can't consent because of the inherent power that correctional staff have over them – to punish or reward.
The illicit relationships made up 38 percent of all sexual offenses reported in 2005 by the nation's prisons, jails and other correctional facilities. In prisons, female staffers were involved in about two-thirds of the cases, according to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. In jails, male staffers were more likely to be the offenders.
These allegations come at a time when legislators are proposing expanding halfway houses, so this development could create a politically sticky wicket in that regard. Such relations between jailers and offenders create big security problems - it's a lot easier for an inmate to convince their lover to assist them in other illegal activities than a guard with no emtional attachment. If nothing else, guards can then be blackmailed because the fact of having had a sexual relation with an inmate means they themselves have committed a crime.
When you think about it, the idea that 38% of sexual offenses in prison are guard-inmate relationships makes that a really high number, especially when you consider that Texas also leads the nation in reports of prison rape. That means the problem likely is quite widespread, adding to the growing body of evidence of widespread guard corruption at TDCJ.
TDCJ needs a lot more more guards with better pay, but they're at this point chronically 3,000 guards short and the quality of new hires has been low. This is a problem that's not going away overnight, but I'd have more hope it would be addressed in the long run if I heard more legislators making guard pay, training, and combating law enforcement corruption a more significant part of the public debate.