The State Worker

California prison captain charged with groping a woman, latest in string of sex allegations

A high ranking official at a large north state prison has been charged with groping a woman, the latest in a string of sexual complaints filed against state prison employees that have cost taxpayers at least $15 million in settlements over the last three fiscal years.

Christopher James Lewis, a captain at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, was charged with a misdemeanor count of sexual battery on Sept 5.

A two-page misdemeanor criminal complaint filed in Lassen Superior Court says that some time between Sept. 5 and Oct. 7, 2017, Lewis touched “an intimate part” of a woman’s body against her will “for the specific purpose of (his) sexual arousal, sexual gratification and sexual abuse.”

Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, declined to say whether the alleged groping incident happened at the prison or whether the woman was a fellow employee or an inmate.

The woman is identified in the complaint as “Jane Doe.”

“CDCR’s Office of Internal Affairs worked jointly with CHP in the criminal investigation,” she said in an email. “The department is also conducting an internal administrative investigation. Captain Lewis is on Administrative Time Off pending the outcome of the administrative investigation and criminal case against him.”

Lassen County District Attorney Stacey Montgomery didn’t return two messages left Monday at her office. Lewis’ arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 15. He couldn’t be reached for comment, and it’s not clear whether he has hired an attorney.

The charges came less than a month after the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing gave a High Desert employee permission to sue the prison system over allegations Lewis subjected her to “severe, pervasive and unwanted sexual conduct and comments” that began in January 2017 and lasted for a year. She alleged she faced retaliation when she complained to prison officials.

The woman’s Oakland-based attorney, Alexis McKenna, said Tuesday she wasn’t sure whether her client was the same Jane Doe described in the criminal complaint. The woman’s name is redacted in documents provided by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

The allegations against Lewis come as critics accuse CDCR of fostering a culture of sexual harassment behind prison walls, a charge the agency denies.

A Sacramento Bee investigation published in January found that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had paid out more than $15 million to settle sexual harassment and abuse complaints the past three fiscal years, more than any other state department. The largest settlement — $10 million — went to four young men who were in a youth correctional facility in Southern California. They accused a male staff counselor of coercing them into sex in exchange for contraband and special treatment.

CDCR spokeswoman Waters told The Bee in January that “even one harassment complaint is one too many,” and her agency encourages reporting complaints, but she said the sheer size of the department may skew the numbers. CDCR has more than 61,000 employees – about a quarter of the state’s entire executive branch.

The Bee’s January investigation highlighted a sexual harassment complaint at High Desert in which a woman alleged one of her supervisors engaged in unwelcome, sexually-charged behavior.

Diana Bernhardt, a former office assistant at the Susanville prison, alleged that a male supervisor, Lt. David Griffith, made unwanted sexual advances, called her and others “pissy-pants,” grabbed a co-worker’s breast in front of her and pulled down his trousers to expose his bare buttocks, bragging that he had butt scratches from his sexual encounters.

Bernhardt settled her case for $310,000.