ELOY — A lawsuit recently dismissed in federal court accused a drug counselor at an Eloy private prison of sexually assaulting an inmate on multiple occasions.
On Dec. 14, 2018, a federal judge granted CoreCivic’s request to dismiss the civil complaint filed by a former inmate of the company’s Saguaro Correctional Center.
The inmate claimed a counselor named James Blackbyrd forced him to perform sexual acts during private counseling sessions in the summer of 2016.
According to the lawsuit, the inmate claimed Blackbyrd demanded oral sex from the inmate or the counselor would have him placed in solitary confinement.
Out of fear, the inmate alleged, he unwillingly complied with the counselor’s demands. The lawsuit states the inmate was forced to perform similar acts on two more occasions.
During the third encounter, the inmate claimed he recovered DNA evidence from his sexual encounter with the drug counselor, spit the evidence into a napkin and mailed it to a relative in Nevada.
According to court records, the Eloy Police Department recovered the napkin and asked Blackbyrd to provide a DNA sample to see if there was a match. The counselor then admitted to having a sexual relationship with the inmate but claimed it was consensual and accused the inmate of coming on to him.
The inmate was convicted of drug crimes in Hawaii, and that state contracts with CoreCivic to house inmates at the Eloy prison. PinalCentral is not identifying the inmate since he’s considered the victim of a sex crime.
Blackbyrd was arrested and a grand jury indicted him for five counts of sexual assault, a Class 2 felony. He later pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of unlawful sexual conduct, a Class 5 felony, and was sentenced to one year in prison followed by probation.
Blackbyrd was released from custody in August 2017. The Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners revoked Blackbyrd’s counseling license that same year.
According to court records, Blackbyrd had worked as a counselor in the private prison for four years before he was forced to resign amidst the criminal investigation.
In 2017, the inmate filed a civil lawsuit in federal court, claiming to be the victim of negligence, assault and emotional distress.
Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for CoreCivic, told PinalCentral in a statement the company is pleased the lawsuit filed by the inmate was dismissed and emphasized CoreCivic’s commitment to keeping inmates safe.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” she said, “and we cooperate fully with law enforcement in their investigations of such matters.”
In his lawsuit, the inmate accused the Hawaii Department of Public Safety and CoreCivic of failing to monitor and supervise the counselor’s private sessions with inmates. The inmate further alleged other prison employees knew about the assaults and harassed him about it.
Counsel for CoreCivic argued the company cannot be held liable for Blackbyrd’s actions because the sexual misconduct was done outside the scope of his employment. In addition, the company contended the plaintiff could not prove any of CoreCivic’s policies or procedures led to his injuries.
“Sexual assault was certainly not the type or kind of conduct that defendant Blackbyrd was employed to perform and did not benefit CoreCivic or further CoreCivic’s prison operations,” lawyers for the company wrote in court filings.
Lawyers involved in the lawsuit did not respond to inquiries from PinalCentral.
Prisons across the country are required to track, report and publish the number of rape complaints made each year by inmates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of staff-on-inmate allegations made in American prisons increased 191 percent between 2011 and 2015.
But the data shows these types of sexual assault complaints are rarely substantiated by investigators. Between 2012 and 2015, only about 6 percent of staff-on-inmate allegations made in the United States were substantiated.
According to audits done at Saguaro Correctional Center, no complaints of staff-on-inmate assaults were made or substantiated between 2011 and 2015.
The same year Blackbyrd was arrested, audits show another Saguaro employee was caught having a sexual relationship with an inmate. That case involved a woman who worked as a “programs facilitator” and later resigned, public records show.
An audit done in December 2017 found Saguaro to be compliant with all the standards mandated under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law that put in place safeguards for protecting inmates from sexual assault. The Eloy prison provides many options for reporting sexual abuse, including calling a hotline or writing a letter to the prison’s warden.