A former West Virginia correctional officer will have to pay a total of $240,000 to three women who say he sexually abused them while they were inmates at a now-closed work release center, according to the women’s lawyer.
The exact amount that James Widen agreed to pay to settle the women’s lawsuits was not disclosed in court records, and the case against him was closed on Dec. 13 in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of West Virginia.
Three women, Alesha C., Tania C. and April Y., each sued Widen, other correctional officers and the state Division of Corrections in 2018. They said Widen, of Milton, sexually abused and made sexually exploitative comments about the women while they were in his charge as inmates at the Work Release Center in Huntington.
All defendants besides Widen had been dropped by the time the case settled, according to court records.
April Y. will receive $100,000 in the settlement, and Alesha C. will receive $90,000, said their attorney, Mike Woelfel. Tania C. will receive $50,000 in the settlement, Woelfel said. He said it was in his clients’ best interest to settle the case, rather than force them to testify during a trial.
Alesha C. told the Gazette-Mail on Wednesday that she had reported the abuse to a higher-ranking officer at the work release center, but it was swept under the rug. She said she kept reporting it at higher levels, until someone listened to her.
She said she decided to report the abuse after she heard Widen was up for a job at a juvenile correctional facility.
“I think women should definitely have a voice and be able to stand up because a lot of women don’t,” she said. “It took me a while, actually.”
In July 2018, a Cabell County grand jury indicted Widen on two counts of imposition of sexual acts on people incarcerated or under supervision.
Widen’s criminal case is pending before Cabell Circuit Judge Chris Chiles, with the next hearing scheduled for February, according to court records. Widen is out of jail on bond.
In their lawsuits, the women said there was a practice and pattern of “sexual harassment, sexual abuse and several exploitation visited upon women at the hands of correctional staff with deliberate indifference” at the Huntington center, which closed in 2017.
Widen, the officer in charge of the women while they were inmates, would make sexually suggestive comments and ask them to engage in sexual favors before ultimately forcing them to have sex with him, according to the lawsuits.
In her lawsuit, Tonia C. said Widen would order her to the women’s restroom, the attic or the basement laundry room of the center and force her to have sex with him. She also said he would enter her dorm, fondle her and force her to perform oral sex on him, and he abused her in a state vehicle at a park-and-ride and in the parking lot of a church.
Alesha C. and April Y. also said in their lawsuits that Widen ordered them to them to the basement laundry room and forced them to have sex with him.
Woelfel said he has represented more than 100 women in court who have been sexually abused and assaulted as inmates, and he said sexual misconduct in the correction system is grossly underreported.
“They’re told ‘nobody’s going to believe you,’ ” Woelfel said. “They can put posters on the wall and say to call this number, but there’s a stigma that goes with that in the prison population.”
The Huntington Work Release Center closed in 2017, and the Division of Corrections has been absorbed into a new state agency, the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Woelfel, a state senator from Cabell County, said the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation has taken substantial steps to address sexual misconduct of its officers, but there was more work still to be done.
“I see material change since [Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeff Sandy] has taken over for the good,” Woelfel said.