A sergeant at the Aspen Correctional Facility in Phoenix is under investigation by the Arizona Department of Corrections for possible sexual misconduct. At least four prisoners are involved in the investigation, and one says Sergeant Ben Sanders made sexual advances to him and touched him inappropriately. The inmate also says he's facing retaliation for complaining.
This is the second time a facility supervised by Dale Copeland, now Aspen's warden, has had problems with sexual misconduct. Formerly the warden of the Arizona Center for Women, Copeland is a named defendant in the ongoing federal lawsuit against the state of Arizona and DOC for sexual assaults against female inmates by DOC officers and staff.
DOC spokesman Mike Arra would not comment on the specifics of the investigation, but said Sanders has been on voluntary leave since February 23, and was on sick leave for approximately two weeks before that. Sanders could not be reached for comment for this article.
The Aspen facility houses nonviolent prisoners with special needs. The department refused to allow the inmates to be interviewed because of the ongoing inquiry. However, Aspen inmate William Enloe told New Times that Sanders made sexual comments to him and then kissed his hand.
Enloe says he observed "odd behavior" by Sanders, who was in charge of the swing shift at Aspen. Enloe, a 23-year-old who is serving time for manslaughter related to a traffic fatality, says he saw Sanders "kissing people on the forehead, [making] sexual comments, tucking people into bed . . . you don't get that from a shift commander."
Sanders notarized a document for Enloe in January and struck up a conversation, Enloe says.
"The conversation went quite well at first," Enloe says, "but then he started getting into how much time I was doing . . . and he started questioning me about, it seemed rather odd to him that a person with blue eyes like myself hadn't had sex with a man."
Enloe says he tried to shrug it off as a joke, but Sanders pressed the point. "Then at that point, he kept telling me I owed him something." Then, Enloe says, Sanders kissed his hand. "He said, 'Until later, Miss Enloe.'"
After that incident, the officer continued to make sexual comments to Enloe, the inmate says. "The whole time: 'Hey, lover, how's it going?' It was constant . . . he did it for almost a month. . . . It got to the point where I was so paranoid I asked other people to literally come shower at the same time."
Enloe also says other inmates and staff have told him of other incidents involving Sanders. One of the inmates now involved in the investigation was kissed on the mouth by Sanders, Enloe says.
There are as many as 20 inmates who have been harassed by Sanders, and other corrections officers have filed incident reports regarding Sanders' behavior, according to Enloe.
"We're actually in a dorm here, and that's why he was witnessed by so many. That's why it was not a secret," he says.
The incidents came to a head when Sanders was caught on audiotape slapping another inmate in the face, Enloe says. An incident report was filed, and, at the end of January, Enloe and the other three inmates and several officers reported Sanders' alleged sexual behavior, he says.
Although Sanders is now on leave, Enloe says the sergeant was allowed to stay on duty even after the complaints were made.
"I was scared. The others were frightened, too," he says. "When you're in a position against a shift commander here, your back's against the wall."
Enloe contends he is now facing retaliation from DOC for complaining about the corrections officer.
"They've been trying to conjure up stories and trying to get us kicked out of here," Enloe says. "Basically, everybody here is trying to cover their butts." Enloe says he hasn't been getting mail from his attorney; it took a visit from his girlfriend to the warden before a letter got to him.
Also, counselors at Aspen have been instructed not to discuss the matter with the inmates, Enloe says.
"We're in a mental-health facility. The thing is, the [counselors] won't talk to you about this issue at all," he says. "They've been strictly told not to talk to us [about the incidents] at all." Enloe says he's now back on antidepressants because of the pressure surrounding the incident.
Enloe is also concerned that this incident will hurt his chances for parole when he comes before the board in a few months.
DOC spokesman Arra denies that there has been or will be any reprisal against prisoners for speaking out. "We don't retaliate against inmates," he says. There are no plans to transfer Enloe, he says.
Arra adds that the department is aware of Enloe's complaints about mail and that they have been resolved.
Enloe says the atmosphere at Aspen is tense. "There's a lot of panic here," he says. "The warden's been here twice in the last two weeks."
Warden Copeland has faced similar problems at another facility. Last year, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against DOC for "failing to protect women inmates from sexual misconduct by correctional officers and staff."
Copeland was a warden at one of the women's prisons and is a defendant in the Department of Justice suit. The wardens were "consciously aware of, but deliberately indifferent to" problems at the facilities, the Justice lawsuit contends.
However, there are no plans for an outside investigation into the allegations at Aspen. Arra says the department will be able to get to the bottom of the matter quickly.
In the past, DOC Director Terry Stewart has been openly hostile to outside scrutiny of Arizona prisons, with the tacit approval of former governor Fife Symington, who relished battling the federal government. At her last official press conference, then-U.S. attorney Janet Napolitano criticized DOC for its failure to cooperate with federal investigators in the investigation into the women's prisons.
Two female prisoners involved in the federal suit have also recently filed motions for contempt against DOC and a deputy warden for what they say were efforts to intimidate them into silence. In court papers, DOC denies ever retaliating against any inmates.
Governor Jane Hull's spokeswoman, Francie Noyes, says the governor is "absolutely" confident in DOC's ability to investigate the allegations.
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"They are following their procedures, they are doing what they should, and there is no reason to question it," she said. "We have to wait to see what the investigation finds. For now, we believe that the department is doing the right thing."
Enloe has retained an attorney and is now considering a lawsuit of his own against DOC.
"I did my crime and I put myself in here. I'm responsible for my actions," he says. "I'm here to do time, to be incarcerated. That's my punishment, not to be sexually assaulted."
Contact Chris Farnsworth at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org