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Chronic sex-in-prison problem puts inmates, guards, public at risk

Ex-Corrections Officer Ari Combs, accused of sexual battery on an inmate at Warren Correctional Institution last September, listens Monday during a suppression hearing in Warren County Common Pleas Court. Combs’ statements to investigators were suppressed, complicating prosecution of the case. STAFF/LAWRENCE BUDD
Ex-Corrections Officer Ari Combs, accused of sexual battery on an inmate at Warren Correctional Institution last September, listens Monday during a suppression hearing in Warren County Common Pleas Court. Combs’ statements to investigators were suppressed, complicating prosecution of the case. STAFF/LAWRENCE BUDD

Authorities allege a Butler County woman was caught talking on the phone with an inmate sex partner in the latest in a series of criminal cases involving sexual relationships between staff and inmates dating back decades at Warren Correctional Institution.

Ex- Corrections Officer Amanda Smith, 37, of Fairfield is scheduled to be arraigned later this month on a sexual battery charge in Warren County Common Pleas Court.

Smith joins a list of guards, other staff and contractors at the prison who faced or are facing the same or similar charges in connection with allegedly having sex with felons behind bars, despite the high stakes involved and training designed to deter them from crossing this line.

“It’s strictly forbidden. Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Lebanon Correctional Institution Warden Chae Harris said in 2002 when he was a prison investigator.

Harris’ comment came after Tamara Welton, former manager of the prison laundry, was sentenced to six months in the Warren County Jail for having sex five times at the prison with a convicted murderer in 2000.

Most of the cases referred to in this story happened at Warren Correctional, located just west of Lebanon Correctional Institution near Interstate 75 on Ohio 63 in Warren County.

But Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said they point to a bigger problem.

“I believe it is both a serious problem, and it affects all prisons,” said Fornshell in response to questions following Smith’s indictment.

Warden was demoted

In 2012, Timothy Brunsman, then warden at Lebanon Correctional, was demoted after a staff sex scandal.

RELATED: Warden demoted amid prison sex scandal

Brunsman received a glowing job review in 2011 but was criticized by prison investigators in 2012 for his response to the disciplinary case of prison Health Care Administrator Amy Weiss, who engaged in sexually related conduct and was eventually fired, according to documents obtained by the Dayton Daily News.

Brunsman, who had been the warden there since November 2007, left the prison in July 2012 for a desk job at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction central office.

“Director (Gary) Mohr felt that it was time for a leadership change,” Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said in 2o12. “Beyond that, I will not go into any specific matters regarding (Brunsman’s) operation of the facility.”

Weiss was fired in April 2012 after an investigation found she habitually made raunchy comments in front of staff and inmates and was such a mean boss that she contributed to a nursing shortage. Investigators criticized Brunsman for a lackadaisical response to Weiss’s behavior after he learned about it a year prior, even though she had previously been suspended for groping an officer during a pat-down.

Other staff were also implicated.

RELATED: Warden demoted in 2012 amid prison sex scandal

Prison security risks

‘Escape at Dannemora’ is a TV series based on the escape of two prisoners from a New york prison with help from a woman they both worked for and had sex with at the prison.

While such a security breach is rare, authorities say a wide range of problems can stem from sexual relationships between the inmates and those working in prisons, where roles are unique and can be interchangeable.

The inmates, serving prison terms for often violent crimes, are considered the victims in sexual battery cases. The state is charged with protecting them while they are serving their sentences.

The guards charged with overseeing and protecting the inmates can nonetheless become indebted to the inmates and subject to blackmail or other corruption, Fornshell said.

In other cases, guards use their authority to take advantage of the inmates.

In 2003, Jimmy Long, 43, of Lebanon was sentenced to one year in prison for using his authority as a corrections officer to convince a murderer serving a life sentence to engage in sex in his cell three times.

Between October 2002 and May 2003, Long sneaked alcoholic beverages, drugs and clothing to the inmate, according to prosecutors. At the time of his sentencing, Long was the third Warren Correctional employee facing a prison term on a sexual battery charge.

Latest cases

Prison officials train guards, employees and contractors how to avoid being compromised or taking advantage of inmates. Systems and investigators are in place to catch those who go ahead nonetheless.

“Our staff are provided training on the dangers and consequences associated with developing inappropriate relationships. DRC takes this type of behavior very seriously and allegations of this nature are immediately investigated,” said JoEllen Smith last week.

In the newest case, ex-guard Amanda Smith is alleged to have used her position of authority in a sexual relationship with an unidentified inmate between Aug. 1 and Sept. 12, 2019.

“She was picked up on phone calls with an inmate that revealed they had been involved in an ongoing sexual relationship,” Fornshell said last week after the indictment was issued.

Smith remains free, pending her arraignment scheduled for July 17 in court in Lebanon.

MORE: Judge to rule on ex-Warren County prison guard's statements on alleged inmate sexual battery

She resigned on Jan. 25, according to ODRC.

Another ex-guard, Ari D. Combs, 30, of Trenton, is scheduled for trial in August on a sexual battery charge alleging an inmate gave him oral sex last September at the prison.

The case against Combs, terminated by the state on Feb. 21, weakened when the judge suppressed his statements to Ohio Highway Patrol investigators before he was read his Miranda rights.

Last week, prosecutors were weighing their options.

“We’ll evaluate and make a decision shortly,” Fornshell said..

High stakes for prison staff

Combs and his lawyer, Laura Woodruff, said he felt compelled to answer questions until the investigators turned on a recorder and read him his rights.

“Inmates make accusations frequently,” testified Combs, a state prison guard for more than four years. “We have to cooperate with any investigation.”

RELATED: Prison guard indicted for alleged sexual battery on inmate

Woodruff also represented a prison contractor acquitted in 2018 of sexual battery in connection with sexual contact she had with an inmate while working in the Warren Correctional kitchen. In that case, the lawyer said her client was not subject to the law because she was a contractor, not a state employee.

“(The inmate) wanted to make her his. He threatened her into doing things she wouldn’t have done,” Woodruff added.

Prosecutors said the jury was swayed by evidence indicating the kitchen contractor felt the balance of power had swung to the prisoner.

As a corrections officer, Combs was a state employee subject to the sexual battery law. Woodruff said his case wil be tougher to prosecute without statements he made before being read his rights.

“That case was flimsy from the beginning,” she said. “I think this is going to make the prosecutor’s job significantly harder.”

In Combs’ case, the inmate accuser wanted to get moved to another cell, according to Woodruff.

RELATED: Ex-prison guard sentenced for drug smuggling

“There are a lot of inmates who make accusations because that’s how they get what they want,” Woodruff said.

“It is fairly common,” she added. “Inmates figure out who they can take advantage of.”

A lawyer defending a guard in such cases can question the credibility of the inmate making the allegations more easily when criminals are the alleged victims. The inmates, often serving long prison terms, have less to lose.

For the prison worker on trial, “the stakes are too high,” Woodruff said.

“These accusations can ruin their lives.”