Inmate William Walker says there were few places inside Wayne Correctional Center that he and a prison substance abuse counselor didn’t have sex.
They had sex in the kitchen, he said, and in janitors’ closets – in the back stairwell, the recreation room and even on the prison superintendent’s desk.
Delia Durham, the counselor, brought Walker cologne, steroids and restaurant meals, the inmate said. And in 2010, he said, she repeatedly smuggled in a poodle named Stacey.
Their affair became so blatant, Walker said, that many of the prison’s high-ranking supervisors knew about it. He recalls greeting Durham in the prison lobby each morning and walking her to the front door at day’s end, carrying her purse.
“You’d have to be totally deaf, dumb and blind to not know,” said Walker, who later won a settlement in a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse and harassment by Durham.
The relationship between Walker and Durham, detailed in public records and interviews, is just one of many cases in which prison employees are accused of crossing an important, and potentially dangerous, ethical line.
More than 65 North Carolina prison staffers have been fired since 2012 for getting too close to inmates, the Charlotte Observer found. Others were allowed to resign.
Their offenses ranged from writing inmates letters to repeatedly having sex with them – a felony. Most of the officers were women accused of getting too familiar with male inmates.
State prison leaders say they don’t tolerate inappropriate sexual activity in their facilities, and frequently investigate and dismiss employees who violate the rules.
“These relationships present real security and safety risks to inmates and staff,” wrote David Guice, chief deputy secretary of adult corrections and juvenile justice.
Sexual encounters between prison employees and inmates are often a first step to more dangerous misconduct, experts say. Officers who become intimate with prisoners are more likely to bring the inmates contraband, such as drugs and weapons, or help them with plots that endanger others. They also become vulnerable to extortion.
“You have a relationship with an inmate and all of a sudden, he owns you,” said Gary Harkins, former research and information director for the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. “If they want weapons in return for sex, that puts a lot of people in danger.”
Nationally, allegations of sexual misconduct by staff at prisons and jails increased about 18 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Almost half of all substantiated allegations of sexual victimization involved staff and inmates, the report found.
In 2015, Joyce Mitchell, a New York prison worker, pleaded guilty to helping two convicted murderers escape. One of the inmates was her lover. After weeks of searching, authorities killed one prisoner and captured the other.
Robert Webster, a former captain at two North Carolina maximum-security prisons, said he spent much of his time investigating staff members who became involved with inmates.
“It’s a regular event,” said Webster, who retired in 2013 after 30 years with the state prison system. “It almost became the norm.”
Among the cases reported in recent years:
▪ Julia Peeler, a former officer at Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury, was fired in May 2015 after she admitted to having oral sex with an inmate several times, once inside a walk-in cooler, state records show. She was later convicted of crime against nature. Peeler could not be reached for comment.
▪ A month later, Kendra Miller, a former food service officer at Brown Creek Correctional Institution in Polkton, was accused of having sex with a man convicted of second-degree murder and helping him escape from the prison. Miller’s attorney says she denies having a sexual relationship with the inmate and helping him escape. Her case is pending.
▪ Shaquandra Lee was fired last year from her job as an officer for Bertie Correctional Institution after prison leaders investigated reports that she was pregnant by an inmate, dismissal records show. Prison officials weren’t able to confirm the reports but they did learn that an inmate at the eastern North Carolina prison made dozens of phone calls to her number. Transcripts of the calls showed the two discussing plans to have sex. Lee refused to comment for this story.
▪ Jessica Roberts, a former officer at Pender Correctional Institution north of Wilmington, was fired in September 2016 following allegations that she had sex with an inmate in a janitor’s closet. A prisoner reported that Roberts hid drugs in her vagina and sold them to inmates. Roberts could not be reached for comment.
‘I could have got out’
Walker, the Wayne Correctional Center inmate, told the Observer that if he had wanted to escape, his relationship with Durham would have made it easy. At the end of each day, he said, he escorted her to the prison’s lobby. From there, he said, there was only a door and two visitor’s gates between him and freedom.
“I could have got out of that prison,” said Walker, who is serving life for killing his grandparents when he was 17.
Said Harkins, of the correctional officers group: “If an inmate is constantly meeting somebody at the door and carrying her purse, staff should have noticed what the hell was going on there … That's bad. If that's the case, there's a whole lot more serious problems at that facility.”
The state fired Durham in 2012, after an internal investigation found she had sex with Walker and brought in contraband, her dismissal record shows.
Durham’s attorney says she was fond of Walker, but she denies having an inappropriate relationship with him.
“I’m not going to get into that with Will Walker,” Durham, now 68, told an Observer reporter during a brief phone conversation. “Whatever he wants to say, he can say it. But I’m not going to address that. Because it’s over and done with.”
Although state prison leaders questioned whether Durham actually smuggled in a poodle for Walker, they acknowledged that such relationships taint the profession and put staff, inmates and the public at risk.
“It creates multiple issues and problems and goes against the grain of what we are all about,” Guice said.
Walker, 37, is a muscular man with a shaved head and prescription glasses. He said Durham was not his first prison relationship. Walker said he has had sex with multiple other female correctional officers during the 19 years he has been in prison.
But Walker said Durham was his most serious relationship. He claimed they even talked about getting married.
Their first kiss was in the prison’s kitchen, Walker testified in a deposition.
He called her Sunshine, court documents show. She called him Little Will. He wrote her love poems. She brought him birthday cake.
“Everyone there knew we was having sex,” Walker testified. “ … They used to call (us) the lovebirds.”
Durham refused to take a lie detector test, her dismissal letter shows. Walker took one and passed, according to the letter.
The relationship soured when Walker’s father became ill and he asked to transfer to a prison closer to home. Durham didn’t want him to leave, Walker said. That, he said, is when she became upset.
But for a time, Walker said, prison life was good.
“We used to call it the Wayne County country club,” he said. “ … I had a pretty girl. I had a nice dog. I was being fed.”