In October 2009, while shaking down the cell of an inmate, officers at the Logan County jail found a love note from a female prisoner to a jailer.
Investigators determined she was voluntarily having sexual relations with two guards.
Now, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling that has surprised some legal experts, has determined that while it’s a criminal offense for a guard to have sex with an inmate, her civil rights were not violated.
What started as flirting and the simple exchange of smiles became a sexual interaction between inmate Stacy Graham and guards Alexander Mendez and Rahmel Jefferies. The interaction itself lasted less than five minutes, but the case could set a precedent with longer lasting effects.
Several female inmates from Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud have filed civil rights claims arising from sexual relations with guards. It remains to be seen whether the ruling from the appeals court in Denver will have a bearing on those cases.
After confessing to having consensual sex with both Mendez and Jefferies in her cell, Graham, who was convicted on possession charges and was in Logan County awaiting transfer to a state prison, filed suit against Logan County and the two guards, alleging her civil rights were violated.
On Dec. 20, the appeals court ruled that even though state law defines any sexual contact between a person in the custody of the state and an employee of the state as rape, the evidence for Graham’s consent was overwhelming, and as a result neither the Logan County sheriff’s office or Mendez and Jefferies violated her civil rights.
“They were just absolutely flabbergasted,” said Oklahoma City attorney Tony Coleman, speaking about the reaction to the ruling from his colleagues in the legal community.
Coleman said while individuals, such as jailers and officers, can still be criminally liable he has concerns about the use of consent as a defense in civil rights cases.
“So, in other words, what the 10th Circuit is saying is, ‘Hey guess what, so what that a guard and an inmate had a sexual relationship?” he said.
“So what, a police officer and someone in his custody had a relationship? That is not going to give the individual, the claiming party, because we’re talking about a civil matter here, that’s not going to give them full civil rights claim,’” Coleman said.
Despite evidence for consent, the dynamics of power between inmates and guards with authority over them cannot be ignored, he said.
States vary on how they treat consent in civil rights cases, said Michael Bardrick, who represented Graham in her case.
Bardrick said he was hoping Graham’s case would provide some clarity for Oklahoma in that regard.
“We were trying to set some law for the circuit, get some clear opinion from the circuit on that, and they did take the position that we’re not going to say that consent is an absolute defense.
“We’re leaning more towards the California approach where it might be a defense, but it depends on the circumstances,” Bardrick said.
While it will not affect criminal proceedings, the ruling will certainly play a role in future civil cases, said Tom Lee, district attorney for Logan County.
The ruling will likely cause individuals bringing forth similar litigation in the future to take a close look at the dynamics between consent and power.
“I think what the court is saying there is there’s a degree of consent on the part of the inmate, and that’s weighed against how much power the guard exerted over the inmate,” Lee said.
In 2011 Jefferies was convicted of rape and forcible oral sodomy. The following year, Mendez was convicted of aggravated assault and battery.