Ex-La. CO sues DOC, claiming dangerous work environment led to rape by inmate

Deshunta Miller cites chronic staffing shortages and broken cell doors that left her vulnerable to attack

By Lea Skene
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.
ST. GABRIEL, La. — After surveillance video from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center showed an inmate dragging a female corrections officer into a bathroom at knifepoint last summer, the woman sued the Louisiana Department of Corrections this week alleging a dangerous work environment — including chronic staffing shortages and broken cell doors — left her vulnerable to attack.

Deshunta Miller, 22, immediately reported the attack and told St. Gabriel police she was raped inside the bathroom. The inmate, Erick Dehart, was booked on a rape charge after investigators reviewed the footage and found a homemade knife in his cell.

But the case took a turn when detectives later accused Miller of having consensual sex with another inmate. About a month after the alleged rape, she was also booked on malfeasance in office and fired from her job.

Surveillance video from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, captured an inmate dragging Deshunta Miller into a bathroom at knifepoint last summer.
Surveillance video from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, captured an inmate dragging Deshunta Miller into a bathroom at knifepoint last summer. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Then, a grand jury indicted Miller and declined to bring charges against Dehart. Her attorney claims those decisions came amid an attempted coverup at DOC, where agency leaders sought to challenge her credibility and shield themselves from blame, efforts that could have influenced the grand jury proceedings. 

Miller continues to deny the accusation.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Baton Rouge federal court, Miller said the attack resulted from a "breakdown in security" and accused high-ranking DOC officials of showing deliberate indifference to the safety of their subordinates.

"Inmates were given free access to employees such as Deshunta Miller, through malfunctioning cell locks and inoperable personal safety alarms, even after the institution was warned of and was actually aware of their danger to female employees," the complaint reads.

A DOC spokesman declined to comment Wednesday.

Miller said her supervisors were well aware of longstanding security risks at Hunt, especially the wing she was assigned to monitor. She said Beaver 2 Unit 3 contains rows of maximum security cells, many with broken doors that leave them permanently unlocked. That allowed Dehart to exit his cell and attack Miller not long after her shift started on July 17, 2020, according to the complaint.

That morning, Miller was the only officer stationed in the cell block, which typically houses 64 male inmates. This was the first time she worked alone in that area: Usually at least one other CO would be stationed alongside her, she said in an interview last year.

Her beeper would work only when used outside the building — another problem supervisors knew about, she said in the complaint.

After the incident, DOC officials made several changes at Hunt, including boosting staffing levels, repairing cell doors and instituting new training procedures, according to the complaint. The department also had an outside team investigate safety protocols at the prison, the complaint said.

Miller argued those changes should have occurred long before the attack. "The failure to do so represents deliberate indifference which shocks the conscience," the complaint says.

DOC officials have declined to release records that would shed light on some of the security concerns and resulting actions from department leadership. In response to public records requests last year, officials cited ongoing investigations that prevented them from releasing reports about broken cell doors, inmate discipline and internal investigations.

Among the defendants named in the lawsuit are former Hunt warden Tim Hooper, who was overseeing the prison when the attack occurred, and current warden Kirt Guerin, who was in charge of security at Beaver 2 Unit 3 at the time, according to the complaint.

Hooper was recently appointed warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and Guerin was chosen to replace him overseeing Hunt.

Their respective promotions suggest a serious lack of accountability, said Travis Turner, the attorney representing Miller.

While her lawsuit proceeds in federal civil court, the criminal case against Miller also remains active in Iberville Parish district court.

She was indicted last fall on one count of malfeasance in office after Iberville Parish deputies cited evidence she was having consensual sex with another inmate, and a grand jury agreed.

Dehart, 30, avoided the rape charge — which could have kept him imprisoned for life — after also appearing before the grand jury. He remains incarcerated, serving 30 years for armed robbery out of Terrebonne Parish and five years for simple burglary out of Lafourche Parish.

Grand jury deliberations are secret and law enforcement officials offered little explanation of the decisions.

District Attorney Tony Clayton said only that the case against Dehart was weakened when Miller declined to testify because "the first element of rape is lack of consent" and you often need testimony from the victim to establish that.

"Believe you me, if the evidence were there, our office would prosecute this case in a heartbeat. ... But the grand jury knows best," Clayton told The Advocate last year.

Miller declined to testify partly to avoid the potential for self-incriminating statements before she had been indicted, according to her attorney. But that changed once her indictment was handed down.

Turner said he stated during a court appearance several months ago that Miller would now be willing to testify before a grand jury, but prosecutors haven't indicated whether they plan to make that happen.

When reached by phone Wednesday, Clayton declined to comment.

Turner questioned whether prosecutors are dragging their feet on the potential grand jury testimony while pursuing the charges against Miller.

"A mere observer will look at the subsequent charges brought against Ms. Miller as a retaliation to besmirch her reputation to prevent or weaken any civil case Ms. Miller would bring against the Louisiana Department of Corrections or any other entity who may have some culpability," he wrote in a recent motion requesting that Clayton recuse himself.

That motion was later denied; the case is ongoing.
(c)2021 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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