El Paso County jail

The El Paso County Criminal Justice Center. Photo courtesy El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

An El Paso County Sheriff’s Office employee resigned from his post as a supervisor in the jail’s laundry last fall amid allegations that he preyed upon female inmates, making unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate comments, records show.

Female inmates told Sheriff’s Office investigators last year that they tolerated Walter Steven Woods’ behavior and feared retaliation if they complained, according to investigation documents obtained by The Gazette.

One deputy who interviewed inmates as part of the investigation concluded that Woods likely “engaged in a pattern of inappropriate and unprofessional topics of conversation” with “multiple” female inmates.

But the Sheriff’s Office determined his actions didn’t rise to the level of criminal activity, so the agency dropped the investigation after he stepped down on Oct. 30 — almost two weeks after the misconduct was reported to another supervisor, records show.

Woods, who was placed on paid administrative leave on Oct. 21, declined to comment when reached by The Gazette by phone.

Accusations that he sexually harassed inmates go as far back as 2015, when a male prisoner at the Cañon City prison where Woods worked at the time reported that he was making inappropriate comments and having inappropriate conversations.

Allegations surfaced again in 2018, when a woman incarcerated at the El Paso County jail said Woods grabbed her arm while scolding her, leaving a bruise. The woman reported to a deputy that she avoided Woods because he made her feel uncomfortable. On her first day, he’d told her to let him know if his sexual jokes offended her, the inmate said. Another inmate corroborated that comment. Yet the deputy who investigated only looked into the injury; he concluded the bruise’s coloring suggested it was too old to have been caused by the reported incident with Woods.

The history raises questions about how the jail and other correctional facilities, often overcrowded and understaffed, handle sexual harassment complaints.

Those who investigated the 2018 and 2019 reports followed the proper procedures, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jackie Kirby said in an email.

“The Sheriff’s Office absolutely does not condone this behavior,” Kirby said in a statement, adding that the jail has passed an audit to ensure it complies with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, demonstrating the agency’s “commitment to the safety of our inmates.”

“There was nothing in the Department of Corrections files, nor any information discovered in his background that would indicate there were issues of any kind with Walter Woods,” she said. “He was actually given several commendations by DOC.”

According to an investigation summary that the Colorado Department of Corrections provided to The Gazette in response to a records request, Woods was investigated for sexual harassment after the 2015 inmate complaint; however, there was “no evidence to support the claims,” an investigator wrote.

The DOC interviewed two other inmates, who said they had never heard Woods make inappropriate comments or engage in sexual conversations with other inmates.

Woods also denied making such remarks, according to the investigator’s report.

“The DOC takes sexual harassment complaints seriously, and the Inspector General’s Office investigates anytime we receive a complaint like this,” DOC spokeswoman Annie Skinner said in an email to The Gazette.

By the time the Sheriff’s Office received complaints about Woods’ behavior last fall, inmates were calling into work sick to avoid him, according to inmate interviews.

One woman, who has liver disease, cried as she described the harassment to an investigator, saying the fear of working with him made her physically ill, records show.

“She explained that he has triggered things that have happened to her in the past,” the sheriff’s investigator wrote, describing an interview with the inmate. “Every time she thinks of working in (the) Laundry (section), she feels sicker.”

Inmates interviewed by investigators said that Woods:

• Abused his power. As laundry room supervisor, Woods was in charge of a group of trustees, or inmates who received credit for time served by performing jobs and chores at the jail. Like other inmates, trustees can be penalized and moved to a more restrictive ward. The inmate with liver disease said Woods told her he would hate for her to get regressed if she went to the jail’s medical section. Another inmate said that she sometimes flirted with him in response to his inappropriate comments because he made remarks such as “I decide your out date” and “I sign off on your … paperwork”

• Routinely commented on inmate’s bodies and stared at women working in the facility. Inmates complained about him after he reportedly told one inmate on Oct. 16, “Why don’t we just call the rest of the day off and go get naked somewhere?”

• Questioned trustees about their personal and sex lives, including their periods and sexual orientations, instead of instructing them how to do their jobs on their first days working in the laundry section. Inmates reported that he did not teach them how to clean clothing and other material that was considered biohazardous.

• Offered preferential treatments to the women he favored, bringing them treats, such as pizza and cookies. One inmate said he placed another woman on the day shift when he heard she had made pornographic films .

• Used the jail’s record-keeping system to provide information about other inmates at the facility at the request of those he supervised. The Sheriff’s Office said it investigated this claim and “found no evidence to show he shared inmates’ personal information with other inmates.” He also told one inmate that he could use a portal to watch surveillance footage of the inmates working in the laundry area whenever he wanted to.

On Oct. 22, Cmdr. Cy Gillespie wrote in a complaint that inmates assigned to the jail’s laundry section complained to another security supervisor four days earlier that Woods “had been making unwanted sexual advances of various sorts toward the all-female inmate laundry staff for an undetermined period of time.”

One inmate later told an investigator she complained because she feared worse had either happened to other inmates or would happen if she did not speak up. Another inmate said Woods should be fired and charged for his behavior, according to the investigative documents.

Over the course of the investigation, nearly 20 interviews were conducted, and some inmates were interviewed more than once. Written statements were also collected.

Several of the women said Woods never did or said anything inappropriate. 

The Sheriff’s Office Internal Affairs Unit typically handles allegations of employee wrongdoing. But the agency’s Detentions Investigation Team was instructed to complete the probe, rather than transferring it to the Internal Affairs Unit, “in light of the fact that Woods had already resigned and that no viable information indicated that any criminal activity had taken place,” Inspector Ken Hilte reported in a memo.

The Sheriff’s Office chalked up the complaints against Woods to drama.

Hilte wrote that inmates “chose sides” between two groups: One group asserted that nothing inappropriate happened and that those who made the accusations “were lying with the intent to barter their accusations into an opportunity for personal gain” in the form of a legal settlement or personal recognizance bond, which would allow for an earlier release. The other group felt those who weren’t speaking up wanted to “keep the status quo as a result of the alleged favorable treatment they received from Woods,” Hilte wrote.

One deputy who interviewed inmates, though, reported they had “similar descriptions of Mr. Woods’ inappropriate behaviors, but it didn’t seem as if they all got together to get the same story together in an attempt to get him in trouble.”

Woods was also seen entering the area behind the dryers with another female inmate and closing the door for approximately one minute on Oct. 16, 2019. But the inmate told a deputy assigned to the investigation that Woods was planning on leaving for vacation and wanted her to know how to clean the lint traps while he was gone.

“There was no mention of any specific inappropriate physical interaction between Woods and any of the inmates other than one inmate stating Woods had placed a cookie into the pocket of her jail jumpsuit top,” Hilte wrote. “In doing so, she said he grazed her breast, but she did not think it was intentional.”

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