When Leticia Villarreal, 42, began her prison sentence at McPherson Unit, a women’s facility in Arkansas, she throbbed with anger and pain. She was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. She didn’t speak English. No one visited, no one called. She deeply missed her children. She was, for the first time in her life, utterly alone.
And then, she found God.
Kenneth Dewitt, a charismatic prison chaplain, welcomed her into the Principles and Applications for Life, or PAL, program ― a religious initiative for inmates that’s based on the teachings of disgraced evangelical fundamentalist Bill Gothard.
Women in the PAL program lived in a separate barracks and dedicated much of their days to study and prayer. It was quieter and cleaner than living with the general population, Villarreal said, an overall improvement in quality of life. And it was rumored among inmates that participating in the program looked good on a record, especially if parole was possible.
According to conversations with former PAL participants, Dewitt would give daily lectures on topics such as personal responsibility, curing impure thoughts and the importance of submitting to authority ― both within a family structure, meaning a wife should submit to her husband, and inside the prison where they were all stuck.
Villarreal grew hopeful about life, even though she faced a 40-year sentence for the manufacture, delivery and possession of a controlled substance.
“I began to apply myself to study,” she said. “I knew I needed to change, I just didn’t know how.”
After Villarreal had been in the program a few years, Dewitt invited her to receive individual training, and requested she report to his office at 6 a.m. one Monday. She was excited to be singled out, she said, and eager for advanced instruction.
When she arrived, Villarreal told The Huffington Post, Dewitt said he knew exactly what she needed: to be touched. Intimately. For a few minutes each morning, the guards in the hallway outside Dewitt’s office left to perform an inmate count. The chaplain chose that moment to fondle her breasts and buttocks, she said.
That morning was just the beginning of her nightmare.
Villarreal said Dewitt would call her to his office every Monday and sexually victimize her, forcing her into oral sex and intercourse. And she wasn’t the only one: Two other women in the PAL program also told state police Dewitt had subjected them to weekly sexual abuses. One woman reported that the assaults went on undetected for three and a half years. For Villarreal, they continued for about a year and a half, she said.
Last week, the former chaplain pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting three female inmates who were involved in the PAL program, including Villarreal. While he was initially charged with 50 counts of third-degree sexual assault ― which could have meant spending up to 500 years behind bars ― he ultimately pleaded guilty to only three charges, one for each of the victims.
After working for the Arkansas Department of Correction for 13 years, Dewitt is expected to be sentenced to five years in one of the state’s prisons. It’s possible that he may be eligible for parole after serving only one-sixth of his sentence. In other words, he could be out within a year.
“He’s 67 years old. The average life expectancy of a man today is 77. So, five years to serve is half his life expectancy,” prosecuting attorney Henry Boyce said when asked to explain the short sentence.
It’s only been a month since the country exploded in collective outrage after Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer, was sentenced to just six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
The Dewitt case has failed to elicit similar widespread indignation, which is not especially surprising.
To start, two of the victims are still incarcerated and serving life sentences. (HuffPost is not naming them without their explicit permission.) They are essentially powerless to speak out about the pain inflicted on them. There is no viral victim impact statement to educate the public about the horror of being assaulted by a trusted authority figure, forced to live alongside them and unable to leave the scene of the crime.
But it may also have to do with who the victims are, said Brenda V. Smith, a professor at the Washington College of Law at American University. The public may have less sympathy toward incarcerated women because they aren’t “perfect victims.”
“I’m interested in where the outrage is about this,” she said. “We are talking about someone who is supposed to be a spiritual guide. Not only is he a person who has authority vested in him by the correctional system, he has this moral authority that comes from his position as a prison chaplain.”
Over the past four years, the rate of women incarcerated in the U.S. has risen dramatically. Many women in prison were physically or sexually abused prior to their incarceration, making them acutely sensitive to abuse by staff.
It’s hard to know the number of women who are sexually assaulted while incarcerated. An estimated 2.3 percent of female prison inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by staff in the preceding year, according to a 2011-12 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
That’s likely a low count, as rape is notoriously underreported and women have even more reason to keep quiet in prison, Smith explained. Incarcerated women may rightly fear that they won’t be believed, she said, and that a false report could lead to them being disciplined or losing “good time,” which means getting a shorter sentence because of good behavior.
“There are actual consequences related to making a report that no one investigates or believes,” Smith said. “The person who is doing the abuse is much more powerful and has much more legitimacy than they do.”
Villarreal said she did not feel comfortable coming forward to authorities until Dewitt resigned in 2014, after he had admitted having a sexual relationship with another chaplain who was also a former inmate.
“I didn’t say anything to anybody because I didn’t trust anyone enough.”
McPherson Unit provides informational resources to inmates about what to do if they are a victim of sexual abuse, including how to report it, said an Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman. Methods include telling a staff member, calling a specific phone line and filling out an inmate grievance form.
The prison has made some changes since Dewitt’s arrest, including knocking down office walls to improve visibility, Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
“The Department will do everything in its power to protect the inmates in its custody from becoming victims of any form of sexual abuse,” she said in a statement provided to HuffPost. “The Department cooperated fully with the investigation into Kenneth Dewitt’s behavior and appreciates the work of the Arkansas State Police and Prosecutor Henry Boyce and his staff.”
Villarreal fantasized about befriending one of the guards and begging him to put a camera outside Dewitt’s office to catch him in the act. But she was too afraid of getting in trouble, she said, and she heeded Dewitt’s warning that she would never get out of prison if she told anyone.
“I didn’t say anything to anybody because I didn’t trust anyone enough,” she said. “It’s not just fear, it’s shame, it’s everything.”
In 2015, after serving 10 years of her sentence, Villarreal was released from prison and promptly deported. She now lives in a small village in Coahuila, Mexico, where she works at an orphanage and paints in her free time. She uses oil, acrylic and chalk, whatever is around.
“I want to touch people’s lives,” she said.
Villarreal said she is still struggling with the trauma of being sexually assaulted. She had a hysterectomy while in prison, and said Dewitt forced her to have sex with him even after her surgery. That was her lowest point, and she seriously considered suicide.
She is still religious and had to work to reconcile her faith with her anger at Dewitt.
“I used to have such horrible thoughts about him, but at the same time I would refrain myself because I knew it was a sin. How can you think something wrong about a pastor?” she said.
Villarreal said she considers Dewitt’s sentence to be a slap on the wrist, but that she’s glad the ordeal is over.
“I think he should do more time, but again, I don’t have a voice because I’m not over there,” she said. “Or maybe I don’t have a voice because I’m not legal. That’s how they treat people like me.”
Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.
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