Mary gained strength in recent months as she watched women strike back at powerful men who sexually harassed and abused them.
The 38-year-old ex-prisoner has come forward with her own story, alleging a former Arizona Department of Corrections detention officer, Kenneth Couture, made inappropriate sexual advances while she was incarcerated and had sex with her while she was still under the agency’s supervision after her release from prison.
Mary, whose last name the Arizona Capitol Times withheld because of her potential status as a victim of a sex crime, became pregnant with Couture’s son not long after her release.
While she awaits word on whether the state will prosecute Couture, Mary fears the #MeToo movement, which took down movie moguls, celebrities and politicians, may have forgotten her and millions of people still behind bars. And she fears Couture may never be charged with a crime even though their child was conceived while she was under DOC supervision.
Amy Fettig, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said the problem of sexual misconduct in society at large is amplified in a corrections environment. Prisoners don’t generally have free access to family and friends or the press, and the victim is viewed as having less credibility by virtue of being behind bars.
“So many aspects of your life are under the control of others,” Fettig said, “so that this culture of silence and disbelief sets people up to be not just harassed but seriously abused.”
Mary’s case underscores nationwide findings by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics and efforts to audit the implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.
According to a 2015 report, more than 8,700 allegations of sexual victimization of women and men at adult prisons were reported in 2011 alone.
About 10 percent were substantiated, and of that, nearly half were found to have involved correctional staff members.
Under state law, any prison employee or contractor commits unlawful sexual conduct “by intentionally or knowingly engaging in any act of a sexual nature with an offender” under state, county or city custody.
Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, brought Mary’s case to the Capitol Times’ attention after Mary sought her guidance in pursuing criminal charges against Couture.
Hamm said Mary was concerned she would not be taken seriously by prosecutors, but Hamm saw a clear violation of the law and the trust placed in the former officer.
“There is no such thing as a consensual, sexual relationship between someone who is supervising in a prison or on probation or parole and the victim,” Hamm said.
Couture resigned from DOC in 2012, but he was a department employee while Mary was on parole and became pregnant by him, according to an investigation by the DOC Office of Inspector General. DNA testing later confirmed Couture is the boy’s biological father.
Couture told investigators he knew Mary while she was incarcerated at the Perryville state women’s prison. Though Mary was on parole when they had sex, she alleged that Couture also had inappropriate personal conversations with her and told her to undress in her bunk while she was incarcerated.
Mary brought her allegations to DOC last year, leading the department to investigate Couture.
DOC recommended Couture be charged with unlawful sexual conduct, a class 5 felony punishable by up to two and half years in prison.
But on January 22, Mary said she was told prosecutors would decline to press charges without concrete evidence that Couture knew she was still under the department’s supervision at the time of their involvement.
Maricopa County Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Jacinto said prosecutors are reviewing the case and a charging decision has not been made.
Mary wondered if being a convicted felon has affected the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office’s consideration of her case.
“I do feel like everything was for nothing,” she said in an email to the Capitol Times. “It is upsetting because I incurred all those extra emotions and fought through hell for nothing. Unlike celebrities in the #MeToo movement, we risk everything by coming forward and our claims are pushed aside with not enough evidence. I see now why other inmates do not come forward. They’ve been in the system long enough to know it doesn’t get them anywhere.”
DOC’s investigative report says Couture “was a subject for similar conduct” in five cases apart from Mary’s between 2003 and 2012. They included one case involving sex offense allegations, one involving allegations of a non-sexual staff-prisoner relationship and three cases of staff misconduct. There was also an administrative inquiry in 2012.
As of this week, DOC had not finished redacting copies of those reports to fulfill a public records request by the Capitol Times. Without the full details, the extent to which the claims were substantiated or involved Couture is unclear.
DOC investigators determined in Mary’s case Couture “knowingly and intentionally” had sexual intercourse with her on at least two occasions, and that Couture had known she was incarcerated while he was an active correctional officer.
DOC spokesman Andrew Wilder said the department supports “prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”
“Had he not resigned and had this come to light while he was an employee, let me assure you he would no longer be employed with the department,” Wilder said. “We would have followed the same course of action as we did this number of years later when the information was brought forward to us.”
Mary’s case did not come to light while Couture was employed by DOC because she never raised a formal complaint behind bars. It took her five years to even realize a crime may have been committed.
Mary served time after pleading guilty in 2010 to theft and fraudulent schemes. She said she was cooking the books for a construction company after graduating from college, and when there was a deeper look into the finances following the onset of the recession, her employer turned her in.
Her involvement with Couture began at a Perryville picnic table over their morning coffee. Their conversations became personal. She got to know him. She said she became dependent on him for a break from her reality even when it escalated.
She said Couture would come to her bunk and tell her to get undressed. She said he looked her up and down but never touched her.
The department’s report noted she told investigators nothing physical happened while she was in prison, but she did “explain showing him her breasts while lying in her bunk.”
The feelings she was left with were “complicated.”
“You have been so deprived of attention, emotional connection with people that part of it makes you feel — I don’t want to say happy because happy’s not the word, but it makes you feel maybe special. You’re getting special attention,” Mary said. “But at the same time, if you don’t do what you’re instructed to when you are in prison, you can get a (discipline) ticket.”
Mary stayed silent while incarcerated because she feared retaliation. She said she believed the system would come down on her, not Couture.
She would have been right to fear that. State statute once criminalized the act of a prisoner engaging in sexual relations with correctional staff.
But that changed in 2007 when former Rep. Jennifer Burns’ HB2342 decriminalized such relations for prisoners, leaving in place penalties for correctional staff.
Mary only learned about the law when Couture filed for custody of their son in 2016, and her attorney revealed he could be charged.
But Couture certainly should have been aware of the law.
In his 13 years of employment with DOC, he attended yearly training on inmate-staff relationships, including contact with released prisoners, according to the department’s report.
The report noted Mary was housed in a unit at Perryville from March 2010 until March 2012, and Couture was assigned to her housing unit from June 2009 to June 2011, returning from time to time when the unit was short-staffed.
Mary said he asked for her phone number on December 25, 2011.
She was released on March 27, 2012, and she said he called the next day to arrange a rendezvous.
They got a hotel room on April 1, 2012, and began a sexual relationship that lasted three weeks, Mary said.
She discovered she was pregnant on Mother’s Day.
“I’ve had a lot of time to digest what happened, and it was not easy,” Mary said. “I spent months crying constantly, not functioning at all, thinking that I was crazy, thinking I was nuts. And looking back, I can see how it wasn’t a normal situation. It’s not a normal relationship.”
Couture did not return the Capitol Times’ requests for comment.
He told DOC investigators that to him “an inmate’s an inmate an inmate… we have it in our head we don’t mess with inmates, and I never did, of course.”
He recalled having “professional” conversations with Mary at Perryville that “never crossed the line,” and said they met on the outside when he recognized her at a mall.
According to the DOC report, Couture said, “I didn’t have anything to do with her while she was in prison … she got out of prison I asked her are you on paper, are you off.”
Couture repeatedly insisted Mary had said she was no longer under DOC supervision and that he was in the process of leaving the department, according to the DOC report. “I had no knowledge I was breaking the law,” he said.
He told investigators he was taking a leave of absence at the time they were involved. He also disputed the dates of their involvement Mary gave and said he was away for military training at that time.
Wilder said sexual conduct with a prisoner is considered a serious criminal act that jeopardizes the safety and orderly operations of state prison.
He also said officers are trained and expected to abide by DOC policies regarding contact or inappropriate behavior involving prisoners, even while on leave.
Fettig, of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said staff sexual misconduct is illegal in every state, but it is rarely prosecuted.
She said there is a culture of not valuing the safety of people behind bars. That culture, she added, is validated by the lack of prosecutions in cases like Mary’s.
She said the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed to protect prisoners from situations like this. Yet she said departments of corrections still do not take crimes committed against offenders seriously and often assume the people who complain are liars.
Coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse, especially at the hands of staffers, can be “humiliating” and “sometimes dangerous.”
Without taking every case seriously, Fettig said, “there is so much room for abuse in the system.”
She suspected that Mary’s case only got as far as it did because there was undeniable proof of her relationship with Couture – their son.
And even that may not be enough.