Ronald J. Hansen, Norman Sinclair and Melvin Claxton, State keeps guards with past crimes, The Detroit News, May 23, 2005.

Leroy Nelson wanted to be a police officer, but his extensive criminal record -- which included convictions for armed robbery and indecent exposure -- barred him from a job on the force.

It didn't prevent him from getting a job as a prison guard.

Five years ago, Nelson was investigated for sexual misconduct with a female inmate at the Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, according to former guard Julie Kennedy-Carpenter, who said she was questioned by Internal Affairs in the case.

His and similar cases raise questions about the backgrounds and criminal histories of men guarding female inmates in Michigan prisons.

A five-month Detroit News investigation found that the Corrections Department has left staffers with criminal backgrounds or multiple complaints of sexual abuse on the job for years.

In addition, prison officials are sometimes slow to investigate charges of abuse, quick to dismiss inmate complaints and lenient with guards who violate department rules and state law.

At the same time, the department encouraged some former felons to expunge their records, effectively hiding their past crimes. Corrections officials would not confirm the number of guards with felony records or those who had their records expunged, citing employment privacy concerns.

The department's policies have allowed the 20-year-old issue of sexual harassment and abuse of female inmates by officers in Michigan prisons to remain a serious problem.

In fact, the number of complaints since 2000 is slightly higher than a decade ago, when reports of abuse prompted lawsuits by the U.S. Justice Department and female inmates.

The department settled these lawsuits in 1999 and 2000, promising major reforms to stamp out sexual abuse by guards.

As part of those settlements, the state agreed to policy changes, including the screening of all prison guard applicants for prior criminal history.

The department also pledged to test applicants for drugs and check criminal records of guards every five years for any crimes committed during their employment.

"I'm confident the screening process and the checks and balances are good," said Nancy Zang, who ensures the department's policies are adhered to in female prisons. "We want safe, secure facilities that are safe for staff, for the inmates and that don't waste money for the public."

But the reforms made by the department didn't address all the known problems posed by employees with prior criminal records or known histories of violence.

For example, the department doesn't do psychological testing to help identify applicants who could pose a risk if hired.

The Michigan State Police and the Detroit Police Department require such testing. And guards with known criminal convictions are not singled out for closer attention or training.

Tom Tylutki, president of the Michigan Corrections Officers Association, said not all those convicted are guards; a handful are supervisors or employees.

"Michigan Corrections officers have the highest standards in the nation. We go through a four-month academy and a one-year probationary period. You also have to have 40 hours of training in how to deal with female offenders, how to handle them, how to communicate," he said.

In March 1996, the state barred the department from hiring convicted felons. But the law didn't affect officers already on the job, and applicants with misdemeanor convictions could still be employed.

That was true in the case of prison guard Nelson, who retired from the department in 2002 at age 65. He died of a heart attack a year later.

In June 1957, then-19-year-old Nelson was convicted of stealing items from a car. He was given 10 days in jail on the charge. Three years later, he was convicted of publicly exposing his genitals, a sex crime.

He was fined $100 and given one year of probation.

In 1969, Nelson tried to rob a bar at gunpoint but was thwarted by an off-duty police officer who shot him in the leg. He was convicted of armed robbery and spent five years in prison.

Shortly after his release in 1974, then-36-year-old Nelson committed larceny and was sentenced to 15 days in jail and one year of probation. Four years later, he was hired as a Corrections officer.

Two decades later, Nelson was accused of having a consensual relationship with an inmate, a crime under state law.

The investigation centered on allegations Nelson had an inappropriate relationship with at least one inmate working the early-morning kitchen shift at the Scott prison, said Kennedy-Carpenter, the former guard who left the department shortly after the probe.

Nelson and the woman denied the allegations, and he was never charged. He retired from the department three years later.

The failure of the department to weed out or closely monitor guards with criminal backgrounds undermines the Corrections Department's pledged reform effort, civil rights attorneys and prisoner advocates said.

"Guards are entrusted with tremendous power over inmates," said Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a California-based organization. "Common sense tells you if you hire people who were convicted of violent crimes that there is a serious potential for abuse of that power. I haven't heard of a state that intentionally employed convicts."

Problems at home, work

Corrections experts are particularly concerned about officers who have been convicted or accused of domestic abuse.

"Officers with a history of domestic abuse are especially disturbing," said Ernest A. Costa, a former criminal justice professor at Wayne State University. "What are the dynamics of domestic violence? It's power and control. That's the pattern you see in rapists."

Zang said the department has lived up to its obligation under the settlements, including checking for personal protection orders that could lead to action against employees. Personal protection orders usually are taken out by the victims of domestic violence to keep the offending spouse or partner away.

To date, Zang said, the department's criminal checks have not identified any staff with current stay-away orders.

"We have never had it happen," Zang said. "We have not had to address it at this point; that has not happened."

But in the past, department internal documents show that their checks have turned up a significant number of officers with criminal records or domestic violence histories. These documents indicate department officials were aware of the magnitude of the problem for at least seven years.

When the Corrections Department ran criminal background checks on officers in 1998, the director, Kenneth McGinnis, "expressed his amazement" at the number of guards with prior domestic violence and other felony convictions, according to the minutes of a staff meeting on Feb. 3 that year.

While the law didn't allow the department to fire felons hired before 1996, Corrections officials took no action to get these guards special counseling or training, records show. Instead, the department took steps to hide the criminal histories of some officers.

Department officials, internal documents show, placed some staff members who should have been fired on leave while they sought to have felony and domestic violence convictions expunged from their records. State law does not prohibit the department from hiring felons whose records were expunged.

Under Michigan law, a felon with only one conviction can apply to have his criminal record erased five years after he has served his time. That process could be completed in three months and allows felons to legally say they have no criminal convictions in most circumstances.

Corrections officials could not say how many officers have had their records expunged. And because the purpose of the process is to erase criminal records, there is no publicly available source for these numbers.

Need for periodic checks

Because the department is only obligated to run criminal checks of staff members every five years, officers who commit crimes for which they can be fired could stay on the job for years without anyone knowing.

The department depends on an honor system, expecting the officer to notify prison officials of his arrest and conviction. But years before agreeing to the five-year checks, the department had evidence that officers don't always tell when they run into trouble.

This was driven home in the case of Officer Thomas Portman, who began working at the Scott facility in 1989.

Portman and his wife, Rosemary, split up in October 1996. In divorce papers, Rosemary said she had to get a stay-away order against Portman after he threw their 18-year-old daughter down a stairway and out of the house, injuring her shoulder.

Rosemary had the Oakland County sheriff arrest Portman for domestic violence. While he was held in the county jail, Portman called the Scott facility and said he was sick and couldn't come to work. He also had a relative make a second such call.

Prison officials found out about his arrest when the jail called them to say they had a prison employee locked up. Warden Joan Yukins recommended a 30-day suspension for conduct unbecoming an officer and lying about the jailing. Prison records show that on Feb 2, 1997, that suspension was reduced to 10 days.

By that time, Portman was accused of assaulting inmates Tracy Neal and Stacy Barker, allegations he denied. In a deposition a year later, Officer Orlinda Mallet-Godwin said she reported Portman for his sexual activities.

She said on one occasion, he nearly knocked her down running into her residential unit trying to get to inmate Neal. Mallet-Godwin said Portman threatened to accuse her of selling drugs if she reported him.

State Police investigated, and he was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was acquitted, but the department still fired him.

Guards with criminal pasts

When Derle Jones, a 24-year-old factory worker, interviewed for a job with the Corrections Department in 1989, he brought a note from his probation officer to prove he had completed his sentence for credit card fraud.

He got the job.

Over the next decade, four inmates accused Jones of sexually assaulting them and three more complained he made sexual advances or peeped at them while they were undressed, Corrections records show. In 2000, Jones married a former inmate who served her time at the Scott facility where he worked.

None of the complaints led to criminal charges against Jones, who denies the accusations and is now working at a male prison.

Even guards with seemingly minor criminal backgrounds can become a risk to inmates.

Take former guard Keith Richard Armstrong.

In 1980, Armstrong was fined $105 and placed on six months probation for larceny, records show.

In December 1997, Armstrong attacked inmate Leslie Green in a hallway at Camp Branch in Coldwater, fondling her and forcing her to perform a sex act, according to police records. In 1998, during a State Police investigation of another guard, troopers discovered that Armstrong was having intercourse with inmates Linda Lester and Lisa Lorenz.

In 2000, Armstrong, who is now 45, was convicted of three counts of assault, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and fined $260.