Three male employees at Dorothea Dix Hospital lost their jobs Thursday as the State Bureau of Investigation was asked to look into allegations they had sex with female prisoners working at the state mental hospital. A fourth employee left her job under suspicion that she had a personal relationship with an inmate that did not include sex.
An internal inquiry into the reported sex ring is continuing, according to Renee McCoy, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services. McCoy said officials concluded that the employees enabled the inmates to set up bank accounts, access e-mail and make unauthorized phone calls, a security violation.
More personnel actions could be taken as the investigation continues, McCoy said.
Keith Acree, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Correction, said 13 inmates from the nearby Raleigh Correctional Center for Women were working at the state mental hospital when the allegations were first reported in February. All the inmates have been removed from their work assignments at the hospital.
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Acree said the prison system is cooperating with Health and Human Services in its internal investigation. When that investigation is complete, Acree said, officials will decide whether to resume the inmate labor program at Dix.
Employees having sex with people in state custody is a felony, punishable by up to 31 months in prison for each count. The law specifically says that claiming the inmate was a willing participant is not a valid defense. Those in custody cannot legally consent to sex.
Emery E. Milliken, a Health and Human Services lawyer, sent a letter to the SBI on Thursday asking for a criminal investigation. Milliken said that "a staff member" may have violated a state law that bans intercourse or other sex acts between a state employee and someone in state custody.
The News & Observer first requested documents about the sex ring on April 6. Health and Human Services initially refused, saying any records they had were confidential under personnel privacy rules.
After the newspaper argued that such documents are public records, Health and Human Services provided a copy Thursday of a report from the prison system March 17 summarizing evidence that hospital employees had engaged in improper conduct with prisoners, including "romantic involvement" and providing the women with clothes and other "contraband."
The names of the employees and inmates involved were blacked out on the copy of the report provided to The N&O.
McCoy would not say whether some of the female inmates allowed to access the Internet and open bank accounts were serving sentences for financial crimes.
"We can't go into specific details because the investigation is continuing," McCoy said, "but obviously that would be a concern, in general terms."
Inmates' advocates say it is not rare for guards and other state employees to get caught having sex with prisoners, even though the potential criminal penalties are steep.
"It's very, very commonplace," said Michele Luecking-Sunman, a staff attorney for N.C. Prisoner Legal Services. "In our experience, they don't always fire the guards unless someone makes an issue of it. Otherwise, they kind of sweep it under the rug and transfer the officer to another prison or allow that person to resign."
News researchers Brooke Cain and Lamara Williams contributed to this report.