Inmate once raped by prison guard found dead in cell

Published: Friday, Sept. 21 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Priscilla Elizabeth Chavez, 29, a Utah State Prison inmate who won a $1.4 million civil lawsuit and a criminal conviction against a corrections officer who raped her, was found dead in her cell Friday, Sept. 21, 2012.

Matt Powers, Deseret News

UTAH STATE PRISON — A Utah State Prison inmate who won a $1.4 million civil lawsuit and a criminal conviction against a corrections officer who raped her was found dead in her cell Friday.

Priscilla Elizabeth Chavez, 29, had a long criminal history that mostly involved a volatile relationship with law enforcement. But 11 years ago, she was in the news for being the victim of a crime by a law enforcer. Former corrections officer Louis Poleate was sentenced to five years in prison for raping Chavez in 2001 while she was an 18-year-old inmate.

In 2010, a federal judge awarded Chavez $1.4 million in damages for what he called a brutal and vicious rape.

Since that incident, Chavez was sent back to the Utah State Prison after subsequent convictions. Her mother claims her daughter was the target of retaliation there. Three weeks ago, Irene Chavez said she received a letter from a female inmate who was housed near her daughter's cell. The inmate claimed her daughter was being forced to endure constant abuse.

Irene Chavez said her daughter also sent a letter to her attorney, Randy Phillips, asking for help.

"She wrote to her lawyer, 'Don't let me die, do something before it's too late.' Now, it's too late," an emotional Chavez said Friday. "So maybe God took her because she was suffering so bad, and I couldn't do anything."

Prescilla's sister, Francene Chavez, also spent 10 years in prison and said she saw the abuse of her sister first hand.

Unified police officer Levi Hughes said his department is investigating Chavez's death. She had a cell by herself and was found dead about 6:30 a.m., he said. There were no obvious signs of trauma.

He also noted that she had a "medical history," but he would not go into detail.

The medical examiner will determine a cause of death, Hughes said. He also noted the department did not have any police reports of Chavez being abused at the prison in recent years.

Priscilla Chavez said after she came forward with the allegations against Poleate, other prison guards retaliated against her by dumping bleach in her cell and spraying her sheets with chemical sprays.

In his 2010 decision ordering Poleate to pay Chavez damages, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups said, "If there is any accuracy to (the woman's) descriptions of having guards retaliate against her after Mr. Poleate was punished for raping her, those guards will also be given something to think about with this damage award."

Chavez was serving time for convictions of conspiracy to disarm a peace officer, a second-degree felony, and attempted assault by a prisoner, a class A misdemeanor.

For more than 10 years, Chavez was in and out of the court system mainly on charges of assault by a prisoner, assault on a corrections officer or damaging a jail cell, according to Utah court records. Many of her charges were ultimately dismissed or combined with sentences she was already serving. Her arrests were so frequent that she was referred to the Utah State Hospital for tests.

But several of her cases also ended in convictions.

• In 1999, Chavez was sentenced to up to five years in prison for felony assault by a prisoner. Three other counts were dismissed as part of the plea deal. Nine days after she was sentenced, she was involved in another assault by a prisoner incident, according to court records. Eight days after that she was charged in a similar incident and yet again a couple of months later.

• In January of 2000, Chavez was again sentenced to up to five years in prison for felony assault by a prisoner. She was back in court facing charges of assault by a prisoner or assault on a corrections officer in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005. While some of the cases were dismissed, in 2001 and 2003 she was sentenced to up to five years in prison, according to state records.

• In 2007, she was convicted of misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

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