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Women in Texas prison say a guard is preying on them

Elizabeth Escalona remains at Lane Murray unit
Paul Flahive
Texas Public Radio
Elizabeth Escalona remains at Lane Murray unit

Wendy Morales said she was surprised when an officer asked her to take her top off.

It came during her first moments at the Lane Murray Unit — a prison under the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — last August. Morales said Sgt. Nathaniel Aviles told her that he — not a female guard, as is the policy— would strip-search her.

She said the guard had already made troubling comments to her and another woman who was also entering the prison.

"Damn, you guys are sexy," Morales recalled him saying. "You guys have nice long hair. I wish I could just put my hands in your hair and play with your hair."

Morales declined to name the other woman. No other person was listed in the report on the incident, based on her complaint.

She said the experience was humiliating.

“He wouldn't stop. Like he specifically did not stop. He specifically put his hands on my breasts. He put his hands down on my private area. He was all over my legs, like, not your place, but he would not stop,” Morales said.

Her complaint was among more than 600 allegations of sexual abuse or civil rights violations of a sexual nature by guards that were referred for investigation by the Office of the Inspector General over the last five years. The OIG investigates crimes inside prisons.

Lane Murray Unit saw two dozen of those investigations in five years. Two of them were investigations into Nathaniel Aviles.

A lot of girls were saying how he sexually assaulted them, how he searches them, how he beats them. How he throws them on the floor. Like when they get into a fight. Smash their faces,” Morales said.

TDCJ said it performed an administrative review of Morales’ pat down and concluded her complaint was unsubstantiated. Officials said their policy was followed.

Wendy Morales now lives at Hobby unit outside Gatesville, Texas
Paul Flahive
Texas Public Radio
Wendy Morales now lives at Hobby unit outside Gatesville, Texas

The OIG investigation continues.

Aviles was also accused two years prior of coercing an inmate to perform oral sex on him, according to documents from OIG. That inmate later said she didn’t want to pursue the investigation.

Aviles did not respond to TPR's request for comment.

The picture painted by a half a dozen inmate interviews with TPR was that of a guard who can do what he wants and is willing to retaliate for slights.

“My first encounter with him was just very aggressive,” said Marci Marie Simmons, who was an inmate at Lane Murray Unit and whose time overlapped for a couple of years with the guard.

She has been out for a few years, and she now works with Lioness, a prison reform group run by current and formerly incarcerated women.

“He was, for lack of a better word, creepy,” she said. “He stayed too long at our cell doors. If he was making his rounds and we were changing clothes or going to the ladies room, using the toilet that's in our cell — most officers would glance in, make sure everything's okay, and keep walking — he's going to stop.”

Stop and watch.

Nathaniel Aviles has been investigated twice for alleged crimes against inmates at Lane Murray Unit. This one was closed for lack of evidence after the inmate said she did not want to go forward with her complaint.
Courtesy Office of the Inspector General
Nathaniel Aviles has been investigated twice for alleged crimes against inmates at Lane Murray Unit. This one was closed for lack of evidence after the inmate said she did not want to go forward with her complaint.

Women were more cautious when Aviles was around, Simmons said. They tried not to go into any blind spots — or places cameras couldn’t see — with him.

Despite these allegations, Aviles’ disciplinary record shows only one infraction.

Aviles was issued a warning for calling an inmate a "bitch" while conducting a use of force.

“That person needs some sort of retraining and de-escalation, at a minimum,” said Julie Abbate, a former Justice Department official who investigated prisons for civil rights abuses.

Abbate said the infraction showed that the guard lost control — something that can’t happen when conducting a use of force.

Abbate currently works for Just Detention, a nonprofit dedicated to ending sexual assault in prison.

She said, given Aviles’ two sexual assault allegations, that the prison should limit his interactions with women.

“They shouldn't have opportunities to be one on one with an incarcerated woman if they've got that allegation against them,” she said. “Nor do I think that they would want that opportunity to be alone one on one with the woman. Just to avoid appearances of impropriety.”

But TDCJ is not limiting those interactions, and Aviles still works in housing areas with women. It wasn't clear if they have the manpower to limit his interactions. More than 40% of the positions at Lane Murray were vacant as of the end of April.

Escalona points to where she was stictched after the incident this past February.
Paul Flahive
Texas Public Radio
Escalona points to where she was stictched after the incident this past February.

In fact, another inmate — Elizabeth Escalona — accused Aviles of making sexual advances toward her. When she rebuffed him, she said he found a way to get even.

In February, Escalona said she was being escorted by Aviles and another guard back to her cell. Escalona had just been interviewed by the OIG about another guard with whom they said she had an inappropriate relationship. That guard was walked off the unit and barred from coming back.

Flanked on both sides by officers, Escalona said she saw Aviles trying to trip her. She stopped and squatted then went limp to avoid a bigger fall.

“He just lifted me and slammed me,” she said. Aviles drove her face into the ground, Escalona said.

Her head split open, requiring three stitches. She had a burst blood vessel in her eye and described the symptoms of concussion. Other women on her pod wrote that her black eye swelled almost to being completely closed.

“I don't understand how he didn't get arrested, how they're just letting him get away,” Escalona said.

But TDCJ said it was Escalona, not Aviles, who caused her injuries.

By intentionally falling, they said she caused guards to fall on top of her and that her account is contradicted by multiple guards and video of the incident’s immediate aftermath.

TPR was not allowed to view the video. A source who viewed it told TPR that Escalona admitted to falling on purpose.

Escalona said she told them, with blood streaming down her face, that Aviles did this to her.

Another inmate, Savannah Taylor, is friendly with Escalona. She said she was being escorted not 10 feet away when the incident occurred. “He picked her up out of the air, like her whole body came out of the air in her face, hit the ground,” Taylor said.

The severity of Escalona’s injuries — which several inmates wrote TPR about — were not consistent with a simple fall, even if a man fell on top of her, according to a medical professional TPR consulted.

A spokeswoman for TDCJ said that Aviles has done nothing that would get him fired.

The prison system opened a criminal case against Escalona for assaulting the officers. They said of the inmates TPR spoke to, only one inmate grievance against Aviles could be found.

Inmates like Mona Nelson said this raised another concern — that inmates' grievances aren’t being pursued. “I wrote two on Aviles. Never saw those, ever. And I've written two,” she added.

Inmates are supposed to get paperwork documenting that they filed them and whatever the resolution is. “I didn't get an answer. I didn't get a copy,” Nelson said.

She said that Aviles has told inmates he can do whatever he wants. Nelson said she is not afraid of Aviles. The former boxer serving time for murder is still built to fight. But she said she has witnessed him physically assault multiple women.

A spokeswoman for TDCJ said it refutes the idea that the grievance system doesn’t work. She added that there are multiple other avenues for an inmate to file a complaint, including through the independent ombudsman and the Prison Rape Elimination Act Officer.

Prisoners who spoke with TPR expressed little faith in these routes.

Escalona struggled to maintain her composure in one interview. She said she wakes up screaming from nightmares caused by the incident. She said she saw Aviles while at recreation not long after the incident. She lost control of her bladder.

“I don't know what's going to happen after this. But I know I need to talk — that not only did he do this to me, but he did this to other women in here — and they're scared to step up,” she said.

TDCJ has a zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct, abuse and harassment of inmates.

But the half dozen women TPR spoke to said if that were true, Aviles would not be working with them.

Copyright 2024 Texas Public Radio

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.