Ownership of a privately-operated Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) halfway house near Tulsa has changed hands in the midst of at least two lawsuits and possible criminal charges stemming from allegations that the owner of a sandwich shop routinely subjected female work release prisoners to sexual harassment and abuse.
The complaints allege that employees with Avalon Correctional Services, which operates the Turley Residential Center, knew about the sexual misconduct but continued to send women to the business in return for kickbacks from the owner. [See: PLN, Jan. 2015, p.1].
Sub shop owner Abbas Kazemi Kia fled “to avoid prosecution” after Tulsa police conducted an investigation and raided the shop, according to a negligence lawsuit filed on November 18, 2014 by former work release prisoner Cassie Chambers. The suit names Avalon, the ODOC, Kia and three other businesses. [See: PLN, July 2015, p.63]. The sub shop abruptly closed after the police raid, according to the complaint.
Chambers alleged that Avalon knew as early as November 2011 “that Kia had sexually battered a program participant,” but kept sending women to his business because the private prison company “earned a kickback on wages paid to women in the work release program.” Kia “used women supplied by Avalon to increase profit margins and to reduce business expenses,” the complaint stated.
Chambers said she suffered sexual abuse that “included rape and oral sex,” and claimed Kia told her that “failure to submit to sexual desires and urges would result in adverse consequences, including false reports of misconduct [and] the withholding of wages earned.”
Her lawsuit followed an earlier complaint filed against Avalon and other defendants in August 2013 by at least five women who made similar allegations against Kia. In that suit, Melissa Poore, Khristy Hotubbee-Dunn, Kaitlin Lemons, Shamicka Calvert and Victoria Barnosky alleged that Avalon “continually failed or refused to investigate” their complaints and continued to send them to work at the sandwich shop “despite knowledge that women had complained of sexual abuse and sex-based manipulation, and despite knowledge that at least one Avalon supervisor had specifically instructed Turley case managers to deny offender work requests to work at [the sub shop] because of the reported abuse.”
Tulsa County District Court Judge Daman Cantrell denied motions to dismiss the suit in August 2014, and the case remains pending.
According to the complaint, Avalon staff refused to investigate the prisoners’ claims of abuse, and instead “retaliated by variously issuing unfounded misconducts, accusing them of making a false report,” hampering efforts by the women to report the abuse to the police and discharging them from the facility.
“Who’s going to believe you? You’re just a felon,” Kia allegedly taunted the women, according to one of the prisoners interviewed by the Tulsa World.
The lawsuit alleges that Avalon “earned a kickback” on the women’s wages, which gave the company an incentive to keep the women employed despite their complaints of sexual misconduct, and that staff at the halfway house “did not follow the procedures for operating the work-release program and further directed women to places of employment with supervisors who utilized their positions of authority to sexually exploit the women.”
The suit accuses Kia of sexual battery, including “unwanted and repeated touching and groping of the buttocks and breasts, pulling down clothing to expose body parts and unwanted kissing,” according to attorney J. Spencer Bryan, who filed the complaint against Oklahoma City-based Avalon.
A Tulsa World investigation published in November 2013 revealed three years of “serious incident reports” at the Turley halfway house that detailed “inappropriate staff and offender relationships ... inmates disappearing and testing positive for drug use after returning late, and staff charging $20 to get confiscated cell phones back.”
The newspaper also reported that programs on faith, success and self-esteem run by certain volunteers had been banned from Turley while staff allowed other volunteers to hawk lingerie, sex toys and beauty products to residents.
Pamela Smith, a volunteer who ran the “My Turning Point” program at the halfway house, alleged in a discrimination suit that her program was canceled by a Turley administrator because Smith saw and heard things she shouldn’t have, such as tables of “hooker gear” for sale and residents’ accounts of sexual abuse.
The Tulsa World also found that from January 2011 to August 2013, none of Turley’s monthly compliance checks performed by an ODOC monitor mentioned either the serious incident reports the newspaper had obtained or the results of those investigations.
The Turley Residential Center is not the only Avalon facility to come under scrutiny for alleged misconduct. In 2014, ODOC took the unprecedented step of ordering the company to close the 390-bed Avalon Correctional Center (ACC) in the wake of allegations that guards had staged fights between prisoners. In a January 14, 2014 letter, ODOC notified Avalon that the company had 10 days to transfer all 212 ACC prisoners to other facilities. The corrections department also froze the transfer of ODOC prisoners to other Avalon-run facilities. [See: PLN, Jan. 2015, p.1].
Avalon, which has since been acquired by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, continues to operate the Turley halfway house. CCA announced the nearly $158 million acquisition in October 2015.
“We are excited to have Avalon join CCA’s expanding network of high-quality residential re-entry operations,” CCA CEO Damon Hininger said in a press release.
Given the numerous problems and reports of misconduct at CCA-operated prisons and jails, many of which have been reported in PLN, the company’s purchase of Avalon sounds like a good match.
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login