Share story

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A former chaplain at an Arkansas women’s prison was charged with sexual assault Thursday, after authorities said he coerced three inmates into having weekly sexual encounters with him and said no one would believe them if they told prison officials.

Prosecutor Henry Boyce announced Thursday that 50 counts of third-degree sexual assault had been filed against 67-year-old Kenneth Dewitt. The affidavits obtained from the Jackson County Circuit Clerk’s Office allege that DeWitt initiated and scheduled sexual encounters in his office with three inmates at the McPherson Unit — a women’s prison in Newport — between January 2013 and September 2014.

“This man was in a position of authority and trust with supervision and guidance of these inmates,” Boyce said. “The Arkansas code statutorily prohibits any employee at the Correction Department with having sexual contact with inmates. Clergy and people with a position of trust and authority are specifically prohibited.”

Dewitt founded the non-denominational faith-based program called Principles and Applications for Life at McPherson in 1998. He previously ministered at several Baptist churches.

“We are in the process of making arrangements on the specific time to surrender,” Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for Dewitt, said in an email responding to requests for comment. “We have been in touch with the prosecutor for months and have assured the prosecutor that he would surrender if and when charges are filed.”

According to the affidavits for reasonable cause, three different inmates said while they were part of Dewitt’s program, he approached them individually and asked about their feelings for him. All three told investigators that Dewitt initiated sexual activity on multiple occasions. The women said they would have to sit in a chair with their backs to the office door so Dewitt could see if any guards were coming down the hallway.

One inmate said Dewitt told her not to tell anyone and that no one would believe her over him. A second inmate told investigators she tried to stop the sexual relationship, but Dewitt told her she didn’t have a choice. She said she cried after the encounters and considered suicide.

The three women said Dewitt had a weekly schedule. One inmate was called to his office early Sunday mornings, another early on Monday and the third was called in early on Wednesday.

Two of the women told Department of Correction officials about the sexual encounters with Dewitt in December 2014. Department spokeswoman Cathy Frye said the agency contacted the Arkansas State Police immediately to report the allegations.

“We appreciate the State Police and the prosecutor for moving forward with the investigation and charges,” Frye said Thursday. “It is a crime and against ADC policy to have any sexual contact with an inmate, and the Arkansas Department of Correction has zero tolerance for such acts.”

According to department records obtained by The Associated Press, Dewitt resigned in September 2014 after admitting to having sexual contact with a subordinate in the chaplain’s office, against department rules. Records said he chose to resign rather than face disciplinary action.

Boyce said Dewitt, who is listed as having residences in Saline County and Woodruff County, will have to turn himself in to the Jackson County sheriff’s office.

“If he has not turned himself in by Monday morning, I will ask authorities to retrieve him,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in June that it would investigate allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, including allegations of prison staff engaging in sexual acts with prisoners; prison staff exchanging commissary money for sexual favors or sexual acts; prison staff watching prisoners shower or change clothes and making inappropriate sexual remarks; and prison staff taking inappropriate photos or videos of prisoners.

The federal agency said it will also investigate the treatment of transgender prisoners at the facility as part of the complaints it had received.

Frye said the department believed those allegations were linked to complaints about Dewitt, but federal officials had not shared the complaints that triggered the investigation. She said the Department of Justice has not yet issued its investigation report.