Warren County prison sex case: ‘He actually targeted her’

Jurors found a woman accused of having sex with an inmate in a Warren County prison not guilty in a case that raises issues about the safety of people working there, the training provided and the laws that apply to them.

Erica Douglas, 27, of Franklin, was acquitted last Wednesday of four counts of sexual battery alleging she engaged in sexual conduct with James Rose, 41, an inmate serving 15 years at Lebanon Correctional Institution for rape and kidnapping in Butler County.

Douglas worked there as a contract employee for Aramark, a company with food service staff in local jails and state prisons across the region, and more than 500 correctional facilities around the nation, according to its website.

Douglas testified that Rose threatened her, demonstrating that he knew where she lived, and pressed her to refrain from talking to other inmates working in the kitchen area.

Rose said, “he was going to take us both down,” Douglas said in response to questions from her lawyer.

RELATED: Lebanon prison contractor not guilty of sexual battery with inmate

The indictment against Douglas alleged that she used her job to control a sexual relationship with an inmate.

Aramark employees are supposed to complete additional training before working in Ohio prisons, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation’s spokesperson, a measure designed to prevent incidents such as the one alleged in this case.

“The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) has developed an additional eight hours of training for Aramark employees to complement the current DRC Basic Contractor Training class required,” spokesperson JoEllen Smith said in response to questions following the trial in Warren County Common Pleas Court.

“Subjects include topics such as inappropriate relationships, inmate manipulation, and DRC’s expectations of contractors,” Smith added.

Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, called for bigger steps by prison officials to prevent problems with workers employed by Aramark at all 25 state prisons in Ohio.

“I would think that the state would want to do more than just better training of their contractors,” Wagner said in email. “I’m shocked that the state isn’t looking to revise their contract with the vendor, for example. ‘Training’ is a pretty small step.”

MORE: State fined Aramark in 2014 over prison food problems

Sex in the freezer

In occasionally tearful testimony reviewed by this newspaper for this story, Douglas said she and Rose, who also worked in food preparation at the prison, had sex in a freezer.

Contrary to the allegations against Douglas, jurors were convinced the balance of power had tilted toward the inmate, rather than the kitchen staffer, according to lawyers on both sides of the case.

MORE: Study rates Lebanon Correctional Ohio’s most violent prison

“It sounds like the jury felt like the imbalance went the other way,” Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said after discussing the case with staff who talked with jurors who decided the case.

Douglas’ lawyer, Laura Woodruff, said in comparison to state employees in the prison, Douglas completed only a short course before going to work at the close security prison — one of two on Ohio 63 west Lebanon, where about 500 staff and nearly 2,400 inmates are located.

MORE: Other Warren County prison 2nd most violent in Ohio in 2014

A company human resources director testified that employees including Douglas are required to complete one day of training through the state designed to prepare them to deal with inmates, including attempts at manipulation.

Douglas testified that she worked with a prison trainer for only part of a day and otherwise was trained primarily in food service, not on issues such as how to deal with inmate manipulation.

“How to deal with the food and not the people,” she said.

Douglas started with Philadelphia-based Aramark in July 2017 and was fired on Jan. 28 after admitting to sexual contact with an inmate, according to testimony by Aramark Human Resources Manager Sharon Gwilym.

MORE: More than 100 food workers banned from state prisons

‘He wanted to make her his’

Rose picked out Douglas, Woodruff said, citing letters, including one that was displayed on a big screen during the trial.

“He actually targeted her,” Woodruff said. “He wanted to make her his. He threatened her into doing things she wouldn’t have done.”

Rose threatened to tell others Douglas had sex with him, even if she declined, according to Woodruff.

“No is not a word in your vocabulary,” Rose wrote in the letter shown to the jury on a screen in the courtroom.

Woodruff said she and lawyer Patrick Mulligan had defended in similar prison cases and described inmate manipulation of staff as a national problem. She suggested this was accentuated by the hiring of contractors to cut costs at institutions designed to rehabilitate and punish convicted criminals, while protecting the public.

MORE: Ohio looks at contracting with Aramark for prison food

“There’s a high degree of inmate manipulation that goes on in these institutions,” Woodruff said.

Wagner didn’t join with the idea that the inmate, not the prison worker, was in the power position in the relationship.

“Prison staff — regardless of whether their paychecks say the State of Ohio or a subcontract — have a lot of power over incarcerated people and any ‘relationship’ would inherently be coercive,” he said in an email.

The Douglas case is not an isolated one.

RELATED: Prison kitchen contractor indicted on charges of bringing drugs in for inmate

Not the only case

Another Aramark worker, Whitney K. Fields, 34, of Cincinnati, is alleged to have smuggled drugs into the Lebanon prison on June 12 for an inmate.

Other alleged relationships between Aramark employees and inmates have prompted criminal cases in Ohio and other states where the company provides contractors working in state prisons.

Aramark did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The company also offers vocational training to prisoners, according to the website.

Aramark workers were required to undergo the additional training before going to work in Ohio prisons, beginning in October 2015, according to Smith.

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The contract between the company and state is up for renewal every two years, Smith said.

“A renewal cycle began July 1, 2017,” the prison system spokesperson added.

It was unclear if the next renewal of Aramark’s contract with the state prison system — valued at $60 million a year by Prison Legal News — was being reviewed.

Legal loophole?

Woodruff said the law used to prosecute Douglas did not apply to contractors and argued the case actually turned on the section of the law requiring prosecutors to establish that the defendant was a prison employee.

“She very clearly worked for Aramark Food Services,” said Woodruff. Aramark, “not the prison,” dictated Douglas’ duties.

“She had no supervisory authority over the inmates. Her primary purpose was to supervise the preparation and distribution of food,” Woodruff added.

Despite the objection of Assistant County Prosecutor Travis Vieux, the judge allowed Adam Webber, a Dayton-area lawyer, to testify on employment law for the defense.

MORE: Murderer, linked to 2 inmate murders, including Lebanon Correctional cellmate, accused of guard assault

Fornshell, despite the acquittal, said he remained confident other cases could be successfully prosecuted under the existing law, but welcomed a state law clearing up the issue.

“The legislature could act in order to eliminate that argument,” he said.

“It is a unique issue,” Fornshell added. “You are starting to see, particularly in food service, the prisons have contracts with outside vendors.”

Fornshell said state prison officials need to make internal changes to better deal with manipulative inmates, training workers and transferring inmates once a relationship is discovered.

Rose had been moved to the Pickaway Correctional Institution. It was unclear if he was punished in the incident involving Douglas.

He is scheduled for release on Nov. 2, 2025.

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