When a mother of two reported she was raped at the hands of a George County jail guard, she was thrown into solitary confinement.
She had been jailed because of her inability to pay $1,480 in fines for misdemeanor traffic violations — all of which led to no prison time.
“It’s ridiculous that some of these counties still allow these debtor’s prisons,” said Daniel Waide, an attorney who is representing the victim’s two minor children in a civil suit against the city of Lucedale, George County and the former George County jailer convicted of the crimes. “You can’t just lock someone up because she can’t pay her fines. You know, basically, it’s a crime to be poor in some counties in Mississippi.”
The victim would die in a car accident in Mobile, Alabama, before the case made it to court.
On Monday, ex-George County jailer Warren Avery, 60, admitted to his crimes.
In a pre-trial deal with the state, Avery pleaded guilty to one count of attempted unlawful sexual activity and two counts of unlawful sexual activity.
A charge of unlawful sexual activity is often brought against a jail guard accused of having sex with a prisoner — with or without their consent.
Avery was not arrested on a charge of rape.
The Office of the District Attorney recommended Avery serve two years in prison day-for-day for the crimes, which Judge Dale Harkey followed at the sentencing. Harkey also fined Avery $3,000 and ordered him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
“I would like to have seen the district attorney do something more to punish him, but some justice is better than no justice,” Waide said.
The same sentence was handed down when two other former South Mississippi jailers went to prison for having sex with two women in the Jackson County jail in the last two years. All three received two-year prison sentences.
The district attorney’s office declined to comment.
An investigation began in the George County case after the victim reported what happened on Sept. 7, 2016.
“She’s always called it rape,” Waide said, though the charges could suggest the sex was consensual. “It’s never been anything but that.”
Waide said the attack took an emotional toll. He saw it firsthand when the woman came to a law office to recount the vivid details.
“When she retold the story of what happened to her,” Waide said, “you could see the pain in her eyes because she hadn’t retold what happened with such vividness before I met her.”
It happened after Avery pulled the woman from her cell one night, her attorney said, and took her to a supervisor’s unoccupied office.
During the investigation, authorities reviewed surveillance footage of Avery escorting the woman to the empty office and other footage to corroborate the woman’s claims.
Sheriff Keith Havard fired Avery after the crimes surfaced.
Prior to that, Waide said, Avery had “full and unfettered access” to the woman behind bars in George County and was even allowed to walk around freely while women had no choice but shower in front of him.
“You are supposed to have a female corrections officer for that purpose,” Waide said.
Disinfectants and humiliation
In the lawsuit, Avery and another jail guard are accused of inhumane treatment of the woman and other female inmates.
The first incident occurred shortly after the victim was jailed in August 2016 after being arrested during a traffic stop on a warrant for failure to pay old fines.
She said Avery ordered her and other female detainees to strip naked and doused them in disinfectant spray for the sole purpose of “humiliating and embarrassing” them, records say.
The lawsuit says Avery was allowed to “move, transfer, and interact with female inmates without a female officer being present.”
After the victim reported being raped to jail officers, the lawsuit says, she was placed in solitary confinement and was denied the “customary sack lunches.”
Because of jail overcrowding, the victim was released from solitary confinement and the jail on Sept. 21, 2016.
A psychiatric evaluation showed she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her jail stay.
On April 15, 2017, less than a year after the assault, authorities once against picked up the victim and put her in jail without a hearing for failure to pay old fines.
During that jail stay, the lawsuit says, the woman suffered permanent damage to her right eye, including the loss of sight, after another jail guard fired a pressurized gun full of pepper spray at at the victim.
A review of surveillance footage showed the second officer had no reason to fire the pepper spray, the lawsuit says, which amounts to using excessive force.
Justice for her children
Since the woman’s death by car accident, her attorney has been working to help her two minor children.
The civil case had been put on hold pending the outcome of Avery’s criminal prosecution, but now the civil case is set to proceed, which could mean monetary damages awarded to the children.
The woman’s was her children’s sole caretaker, and they are now in the custody of a relative.
She had held down a job, had been in trouble in years past with drugs, but had cleaned herself up by the time she was locked up for old fines.
“We are hoping to get justice for her children,” Waide said.
Other ‘debtor’s prison’ cases
In October 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against Biloxi for illegally arresting and jailing residents for nonpayment of fines.
The 73-page complaint said people in Biloxi were being jailed without a hearing or an attorney and were told they can stay out of jail only if they paid all court fines and fees in full.
The city of Biloxi settled the federal lawsuit in March 2016 and agreed to pay $75,000 for damages and legal costs. The city, however, admitted no wrongdoing.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU pointed out that Biloxi should have known better than to run a debtor’s prison because of a case filed 10 years earlier. In 2005, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal lawsuit against Gulfport for running a debtor’s prison in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center.
As a result, the city of Gulfport adopted policy reforms, which ultimately led to the voluntary dismissal of the lawsuit. In 2018, a new law passed in the state to reduce incarceration costs and to provide judges with the discretion to set up payment plans for those who cannot afford to pay their fines and fees in full.
Still, the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines has continued in the state.
Most recently, the city of Meridian agreed to stop jailing people who are poor and cannot afford to pay their fines and fees, according to the release from the MacArthur Justice Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center.