Sexual abuse of a female inmate and lying about his misconduct to federal agents investigating charges are among the five felonies that James Theodore Highhouse, 49, pleaded guilty today to in federal court in the Northern District of California.
Role of Highhouse
Highhouse was employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as a chaplain and corrections worker from the 15th of May, 2018 till the 9th of February, 2019, as per information available from the documents filed in court. He was assigned to work in a federal prison housing female inmates. The prison is identified as FCI-Dublin. In an environment where many of the participants came from a background of trauma, substance addiction and abuse, his role as chaplain required him to offer spiritual guidance and lead religious services. Teaching about self-worth and boundaries was also a part of his role.
He conducted his duties in a variety of settings such as group sessions as well as one-on-one sessions in his office. A custodial role that allowed him to handcuff inmates and refer them for disciplinary action based on incident reports that he would write up, was also performed by him from time to time.
Charges against Highhouse
During the period of his employment, Highhouse met one of the inmates, who came to him for spiritual guidance, alone in his office on several occasions. In his guilty plea Highhouse has admitted that he subjected the inmate to sexual abuse during these meetings, despite receiving training on the subject of maintaining boundaries with inmates as well as refreshers provided on an annual basis by the BOP about the subject of sexual abuse and prevention.
To compound the issue, Highhouse lied to federal agents when he was being investigated for the sexual abuse of an inmate after the FBI and the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (Department of Justice- OIG) had opened up a case for the same.
In a voluntary interview with federal agents on the 21st of February, 2019, Highhouse made statements denying any sexual contact or act with the particular victim. The denials were repeated in a follow-up interview on the 3rd of February the following year. He has, since, acknowledged making those statement that were false, despite having already handwritten on the 14th of August, 2019, a statement that acknowledged his engagement in sexual contact and acts with the victim.
What they said
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said, “Any law enforcement official who exploits their authority and position as a spiritual counselor, particularly by sexually abusing an inmate in their custody, must be held accountable for their actions. The Justice Department will not stand for abuse and misconduct by its own law enforcement officials, and we will take action wherever needed to hold perpetrators accountable under the law.”
Special Agent in Charge Craig D. Fair of FBI San Francisco said, “The FBI and our Department of Justice-OIG partners take all allegations of sexual misconduct by employees of federal prisons seriously and are committed to swiftly investigating violations under the color of authority at all levels.”
Special Agent in Charge Zachary Shroyer of the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General Los Angeles Field Office said, “Highhouse held a position of great trust as a prison chaplain. He exploited this trust and sexually abused an inmate under his care, and then lied in an effort to cover up his crimes. The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General will continue to root out this kind of abuse and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The 6th of July has been set as the date for the sentencing. A maximum penalty of 39 years behind bars is possible within the law.
The investigation agency for the case is the San Francisco Division of the FBI along with the Los Angeles Field Office of the Department of Justice-OIG. The case is being prosecuted by Special Litigation Counsel Fara Gold of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.