- Associated Press - Friday, June 12, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Department of Correction released details Friday of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against a former chaplain at an Arkansas women’s prison.

Department spokeswoman Cathy Frye said two inmates at the McPherson Unit in Newport, about 90 miles northeast of Little Rock, notified prison staff in December that they had been in sexual relationships with the prison unit’s former chaplain for about 3½ years.

Frye declined to release the name or age of the former chaplain, who she said had left the position before the allegations were reported. She did not have information available Friday on when the chaplain left the department or when the alleged misconduct occurred.

“It is against the law to have sexual relations with an inmate, and the Arkansas Department of Correction has zero tolerance for such acts,” Frye said. “Sexual relationships between inmates and staff cannot be consensual.”

The department released the details of the investigation a day after the U.S. Department of Justice announced it had opened an investigation into multiple allegations of abuse of prisoners by several staff members at the McPherson Unit.

Neither Frye nor a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice could say whether the federal investigation included allegations against the chaplain.

“The department cannot discuss the specific complaints received, the manner they were received or what the complaints were regarding,” said Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice.

Frye said Friday that the complaints from the two female inmates were the only allegations the Department of Correction was aware of or had investigated.

She said after the allegations were reported, staff notified the Arkansas State Police. The State Police investigated the matter and turned a case file over to the prosecuting attorney’s office in Newport.

The prosecuting attorney did not return requests for comment Thursday or Friday.

A spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he had been made aware of the allegations and was assured that the Department of Correction would monitor the McPherson Unit to “address any systematic problems that may be present.”

“It’s our understanding that allegations of an inappropriate relationship between a former prison chaplain and two female inmates may have prompted the Department of Justice’s investigation,” the governor’s spokesman, J.R. Davis, said. “The Department of Correction acted quickly and appropriately upon receiving that information last December. The Governor and ADC take these matters very seriously and will cooperate fully with the DOJ during the course of its investigation.”

A Department of Justice news release Thursday said the Civil Rights Division would investigate allegations of sexual abuse and harassment that include allegations of prison staff having sex or engaging in sexual acts with prisoners, prison staff exchanging commissary money for sexual favors or sexual acts, prison staff watching prisoners shower or change clothes and making inappropriate sexual remarks, and prison staff taking inappropriate photos or videos of prisoners.

The federal agency said it will also investigate the treatment of transgender prisoners housed at the facility as part of the complaints it had received.

Iverson said the agency investigated the facility in 2002 and reached a memorandum of agreement. The memorandum does not include details of the allegations, but addresses how the facility should provide medical care and mental health care and conduct investigations of sexual misconduct.

Frye said she could not comment on the criminal histories of the two women who made the allegations against the chaplain. She said one of them remains incarcerated at the facility, while the other is no longer in Department of Correction custody.

The McPherson Unit is one of two prison facilities that houses female prisoners who are incarcerated full time. She said there were 999 women incarcerated at the facility as of Friday.

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