A few years ago, Donna* was what some people might call a bad girl. She was sent to prison for forgery, and before that, she'd been in and out of the corrections system -- and in and out of trouble -- almost constantly for 10 years. She failed to appear in court 11 times.
In 2002, just before her 30th birthday, she was released from the Mark H. Luttrell Corrections Center at Shelby Farms. Before beginning her parole as a resident of Dismas House, a halfway house in Memphis, Donna went back to her home state to clear up some legal issues.
"I have a history of running," says Donna. "I got down to Florida, then it was up to me to get back to Tennessee."
She could have continued running. She could have violated her parole and stayed in Florida. Instead, she boarded a Greyhound bus to Memphis. When she got to town, the director of Dismas House, Anthony Sledge, picked her up at the station to take her to her new home. First, however, he asked if she was hungry.
"We went to Kentucky Fried Chicken," Donna says, "but they were closed. Then he took me to a motel -- the Parkway Inn. I don't remember anything about where we were, but I remember the name of the motel. He went to the [motel] office and came back with a key. ..."
*not her real name
Dismas House of Nashville was started in 1974 by a group of students and the Catholic chaplain at Vanderbilt University. Dismas was the name of one of the criminals crucified with Jesus. He asked for forgiveness and later became the patron saint of condemned prisoners. The nonprofit organization once had 11 houses around the country. Five of them became independent nonprofits. The current Dismas Houses -- in Nashville; Memphis; Cookeville, Tennessee; and South Bend, Indiana -- each provide transitional housing and support services to 12 to 14 men and women who have been released from jail or prison.
In his position as director of the Memphis house during 2001 and 2002, Sledge seems to have had unlimited access to vulnerable women. He not only supervised the women who lived at the house, he interviewed incarcerated individuals who were interested in living at Dismas. During the roughly two years he was director, Sledge had inappropriate relationships with at least five female residents or prospective residents.
Sledge was sentenced to six months in prison in January for lying to the FBI about having "sexual contact and sexual intercourse with Dismas House female residents and prospective female residents." Sledge had been in prison before for conspiracy to distribute cocaine while he was a deputy jailer. Through his lawyer, he declined to speak with the Flyer for this story. The state board of probation and parole (BOPP), the state department of corrections, and Dismas, Inc. were not aware of the situation until the FBI began its investigation in 2002. The question is: How could such an egregious breach of trust happen?
Donna wasn't entirely surprised by the motel detour. The night before her release, she stayed up crying, worrying about what was going to happen to her. She had held an office job at the prison, and Sledge would often stop by and visit.
"One time, he was staring at me and I said, 'What are you thinking?' and he said, 'I'm thinking about what you would look like naked.' I sort of played it off. I made a joke out of it. I said, 'It might be scary. I've been in prison for three years.'"
But in order to get out of prison and get on with her life, Donna decided to take a chance with Sledge and Dismas House, located on East, near Vance.
To be released on parole in Tennessee, an offender must have home and work plans that are approved by the parole board. It can be difficult, especially for people like Donna, who don't have relatives in the area.
Dismas House is one of a handful of transitional housing facilities in the Memphis area that the BOPP automatically approves as a housing plan. Dismas is also one of the few such facilities that takes female residents.
The three primary house rules are no drugs or alcohol on or off the premises; no violence; and no sexual activity.
"The only reason I went to the Dismas House was because I had immediate approval from the parole board," says Tiffany,* another former resident of Dismas. "I could've gone home [to East Tennessee], but it would have taken a long time [to get approval] and I was ready to go. I just wanted to hurry up and get out of there."
Tiffany was 19 when she went to prison for computer fraud. While a college student, she began to use the school's computers to transfer funds into her bank account. One day when she went to make a withdrawal, police officers were waiting for her.
"[Sledge] told me you can come stay at the house and we'll help you find a job and you get right out. It was approved on the spot," Tiffany says. But when she moved in, Tiffany says her roommate seemed to be having an affair with Sledge.
"I was there for a while before anything happened. [Sledge] would make passes at me, rub up against me when I used the computer in his office," says Tiffany. She put him off at first, but she couldn't keep putting him off. He had keys to her room.
"The first time it happened, he came into my room at 6 o'clock in the morning. My roommate had left for work and he started rubbing on me and he wouldn't take no for an answer."
In June 1990, there were about 600 female felons in the Tennessee prison system. Last November, that number had risen to around 1,900.
It's unclear how many women Sledge may have taken advantage of during his time at Dismas. Novella Smith-Arnold was the interim chaplain at the Luttrell Corrections Center during 2002. She says several women in prison told her about encounters with Sledge but refused to speak to government investigators. One even admitted to giving him oral sex in a secluded area of the prison in exchange for a place at Dismas.
"They were embarrassed," Smith-Arnold says. "They didn't want to tell anyone. It was belittling, but they were doing it for freedom."
After speaking with the warden, Smith-Arnold says she went to the FBI with the information.
At the corrections center there are no conjugal visits, and sexual behavior between inmates or staff is forbidden. State corrections officials say that no inmates were ever disciplined for having sexual relations with Sledge. But since he pleaded guilty to lying about sexual contact or intercourse with residents and prospective residents of Dismas House, it seems clear that sexual activities with prisoners took place. Amanda Sluss, spokesperson for the state corrections system, says that one of two things happened: Either the prison never learned the names of the women involved or they had already been paroled and were no longer under supervision by the corrections department.
Jack Elder, probation and parole administrator for the BOPP, says that as soon as the board learned the FBI was conducting an investigation, it stopped referring female offenders to Dismas and removed those who were already there.
"When we learned the investigation was going on, we took immediate steps," he says.
Susan Cunningham is the executive director of Dismas, Inc., in Nashville. She says the organization realized there was a serious problem when the BOPP told them the Memphis Dismas House could not be approved for female residents. "We were fully aware that we needed to go to Memphis. We acted on it immediately," she says.
Cunningham and a board member came to Memphis in early 2003 and began an investigation. Sledge was suspended immediately and terminated 30 days later.
"At that point," Cunningham says, "we still didn't have the information that came out later, but he was terminated because he couldn't do the job we needed him to do."
But how did the abuse go on without being reported? One reason is simply that women such as Donna and Tiffany were easy to coerce into silence. And as ex-offenders, their stories were considered less credible.
Both women say they felt their lives were in Sledge's hands. Donna says he was quick to remind her she'd still be in prison if not for him.
Sledge used his influence in other ways as well. For example, Sledge told Donna he'd help her with her resume.
"I got it done and he would tell me it wasn't what he was looking for," she says. "He wanted to tweak it. We played this cat-and-mouse game with my resume for three weeks. There were jobs that I would want to apply for, and he said, 'I really want you to wait. I have something lined up for you.' The second week, he said he would put me on the house's payroll, that I would do office work for him to cover my rent."
Tiffany was going to school and working, but she also felt as if she were under Sledge's thumb.
"If you don't do what he asks you to do, he tries to get [your parole] violated," says Tiffany. "He'll tell you, 'One phone call and your ass will be back in prison.'"
Those who spend time in the corrections system learn not to report wrongdoing. They don't want "to snitch," because they're scared of repercussions.
One woman interviewed for this story said that when Sledge picked her up, he told her he had never been with a white woman before. She told him he wasn't going start with her. She refused any help he offered but says he would rub up against her in the house. She didn't have sex with him, but she doesn't want identifying details published because she's on parole until 2008 and is afraid of retribution.
Kate Gibson is now a paralegal at a local law office. But a few years ago, she was paroled to Karat House, another local transitional housing facility. While studying for her degree, she became the resident manager. She gave the other residents rides and made sure they were in by curfew. She says women in the corrections system are especially vulnerable.
"Luttrell Corrections Center used to be a men's prison," she says. "The guards there said that when it was a men's prison, all these women would line up to visit. They'd have the kids all dressed up. When [it became a women's prison], all the inmates ever saw were their mommas. They get abandoned by their men. They're lonely, they're scared."
Finding a job can be a challenge. People convicted of a felony are required to tell prospective employers. Ex-offenders can risk concealing their history, but it's difficult to explain when a parole officer shows up and starts asking questions.
"You've got women who were making thousands of dollars a day selling drugs, and now they're making $6 an hour working at McDonald's. And they're working hard," says Gibson. "When they were selling drugs, they'd only have to work three hours a day. They don't have the skills to get a $15-an-hour job. They have to learn to lower their expectations. They're not going to be driving a Lexus."
Gibson has seen enough women in the system to offer a possible explanation for how Sledge was able to take advantage of them. "So many of these women have worked and lived under a man's control that they think they can't make it without a man in their life. They're looking for Mr. Right, and he's just not there," says Gibson. "Some women have made bad choices because of it. Some are in prison because of it. They're susceptible to any sweet-talking guy who walks down the road."
Donna didn't come forward until Tiffany did. She had been a grievance clerk in prison but didn't even think of reporting Sledge's behavior. "Who was going to believe us?" she says.
"I told my parole officer [about Sledge], but she called me a liar," says Donna. "I talked to my mother about it, and she called my parole officer. I got back in the house on Sunday. As soon as I walked in the door, [Sledge] pulled me aside and said, 'What is your mother doing calling your parole officer and telling her that I'm taking advantage of you?'"
Tiffany says Sledge began sending her cards and letters while she was in prison, telling her she was special. But she says the letters disappeared from her room after she told her parole officer about her affair with Sledge.
"I didn't know who to tell. I told [my parole officer], and she threatened to revoke my parole. I had all these cards and letters he wrote me," she says. "I was going to copy them, and when I went to get them, they were gone."
Elder and Helen Ford, director of the local BOPP office, say that Donna's and Tiffany's parole officers had no knowledge of their problems with Sledge. The BOPP has no record of either woman reporting the situation. They do have one incident report from Dismas -- a resident accused another of having a relationship with the director. Elder says the complaint was investigated and the accused resident swore it was not true.
"If an offender reports something, we're going to look into it," says Ford. "We're going to talk to other offenders in the house. We're going to talk to the director." But, she says, ex-offenders don't always report things the way someone might expect.
Can a situation like the one with Sledge happen again? Corrections and probation and parole officials say it's possible. In a prison such as Mark Luttrell, family and friends can have supervised visits with inmates in a cafeteria-type room. Individuals and groups that the corrections system considers partners, like Sledge once was, have more leeway.
"We're working with these people day in and day out to help our inmates," says Sluss.
At probation and parole, Ford says the board closely monitors offenders and residences. "If there's any kind of incident or problems in a house, the director reports to us and we decide what we need to do in that instance. We meet with people in the house, and we meet with the director."
And what if the problem is the director?
Elder says that he hopes the public will be their eyes and ears, adding the BOPP recently established a gender-specific work group to examine the barriers women fact when reentering society after incarceration.
At Dismas, Inc., Cunningham is a little more hopeful. After hiring a new Memphis director, the house operated with fewer residents for a year to allow for extra training and oversight. The new director and a board member also went into Mark Luttrell to do a prerelease class with inmates.
"An assurance was made that the concerns about sexual issues have been addressed. They did not discuss a person or specific case," says Cunningham. "We wanted to assure the women at Mark Luttrell that we work with integrity. We wanted to address it in the simplest way we could.
"The men and women who come to us have more problems than other ex-offenders. [Some parolees] have a home to go back to; their support systems are still intact. Having fewer resources makes our offenders more vulnerable. It's incumbent on us to help them."