LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Department of Correction said Friday it is aware of an allegation that a former chaplain had sex with two inmates at a women’s prison in Newport, but it is unaware of any other allegations of sexual misconduct at the facility.

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Department of Correction said Friday it is aware of an allegation that a former chaplain had sex with two inmates at a women’s prison in Newport, but it is unaware of any other allegations of sexual misconduct at the facility.


The department’s statement followed an announcement by the U.S. Justice Department that it is investigating "numerous" allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of prisoners by staff members at Arkansas’ McPherson Unit.


In a news release Friday, the state Department of Correction said, "In December 2014, two inmates reported to McPherson staff that they had been sexually involved for 3 1/2 years with a former chaplain. The allegations were immediately reported to the Internal Affairs Division, which then asked Arkansas State Police to investigate."


The agency said Arkansas State Police investigators turned over their file to the prosecuting attorney in the 3rd Judicial District in April.


"It is against the law to have sexual relations with an inmate, and the Arkansas Department of Correction has zero tolerance for such acts. Sexual relationships between inmates and staff cannot be consensual," the agency said.


The Department of Correction said it did not know of any other allegations regarding the staff at McPherson.


"Other than the report we received in December … we have seen only professionalism on the part of our McPherson staff," the agency said.


But on Thursday the Justice Department said it had received "numerous allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of prisoners by multiple members of McPherson Unit staff."


The allegations include staff members’ having sex with prisoners, exchanging commissary money for sexual favors and inappropriately watching prisoners as they shower or change clothes — while commenting on their private parts and, at times, taking photos or video for reasons unrelated to correctional goals, the Justice Department said.


The Department of Correction said Friday, "If the U.S. Justice Department has knowledge of any additional allegations, it surely will provide us with the information so that we can investigate and take appropriate action."


The investigation is being conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Under CRIPA, the Justice Department is authorized to investigate potential violations of the constitutional rights of prisoners in prisons or jails operated by state or local governments when there appears to be a pattern or practice of such violations.


The Justice Department said it has conducted similar investigations in other jurisdictions, and recently entered into settlement agreements that are expected to lead to reforms following its investigations of staff sexual abuse of women prisoners in Kansas and Alabama.


The department said people who have information relevant to the investigation are encouraged to contact it via email at Community.McPherson@usdoj.gov.


J.R. Davis, spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said in an email Friday, "The Governor and ADC take these matters very seriously and will cooperate fully with the DOJ during the course of its investigation. ADC will continue to closely monitor the McPherson unit to address any systematic problems that may be present."