NORMAN, Okla. (AP) - A former prison secretary accused of having sex with an inmate has been charged with first-degree rape in the latest in a series of Oklahoma cases involving allegations of sexual activity between inmates and jail or prison staff.
Prosecutors last week filed a first-degree rape charge against 27-year-old Joi Ilene Starr of Norman after she told a prison investigator she had sex with a male inmate at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in August, court records show.
Although the sexual acts were consensual, Starr was charged with rape because any sexual contact between an inmate and a prison staff member is illegal, said District Attorney Greg Mashburn. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.
“Certainly you don't want people to take advantage of inmates who are in custody and have no other options,” Mashburn said. “Even in this situation, where you have a consensual relationship, that's just something that can't be tolerated within the boundaries of prison walls.
“It prevents employees from victimizing the inmates.”
Court records do not indicate if Starr has hired an attorney, and a telephone number listed in her name had been disconnected. She resigned from the Department of Corrections in August, a prison spokesman said.
The case is the latest in a series of alleged sexual assaults on inmates by jail or prison staff.
In a case in western Oklahoma, former Custer County Sheriff Mike Burgess, a 30-year law enforcement veteran, was charged in April with 35 felony counts, including rape, sodomy and bribery, for allegedly running a sex-slave operation at the jail. Among other things, Burgess is accused of sexual misconduct with female inmates in his custody.
A lawsuit filed by 12 former female inmates alleges the sheriff's employees had them engage in wet T-shirt contests and offered cigarettes to those who would flash their breasts.
In Okfuskee County, a 20-year-old female jailer was charged in January with forcible sodomy of a male inmate after a New Year's Eve tryst at the jail.
According to Oklahoma Department of Corrections records, which include only state prison facilities and not county jails, there were 45 reports of staff sexual misconduct in 2005 and 2006, the most recent years for which statistics are available. Of those, only 13 were substantiated, DOC records show.
Prison spokesman Jerry Massie said the department pushed to make sexual contact between inmates and staff a felony crime and focus on the issue during training for prospective and current employees.
“We stress that you're a professional and you need to act like one,” Massie said.
“It's something that occurs often enough that we need to be concerned about it and educate staff, and inmates as well, but it's not something that's happening all the time in large numbers.”
Nationally, a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of 344 local jail jurisdictions showed that of the estimated 6,500 official allegations of prison sexual violence in 2006, 53 percent involved corrections staff.