Inmate Says He Was Raped, Retaliated Against at CoreCivic Prison in Arizona

The entrance to Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona.
The entrance to Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. Google Maps
Justin Fuller didn't want to sleep with Christina Lopez when she showed up in his cell in Saguaro Correctional Center on the night of June 8.  But the corrections officer swore she'd make his life a living hell if he didn't, according to Fuller, so he yielded.

Fuller was, and still is, an inmate at the private prison, which is run by the company CoreCivic in Eloy, Arizona.

Lopez has since been fired. In August, she pleaded guilty to one charge of unlawful sexual conduct in a correctional facility — a Class 6 felony — and in October was sentenced to two years' probation, court records show. By law, she was not required to register as a sex offender.

Fuller maintains that he was raped.

"She forced herself on top of me," he told Phoenix New Times by phone. "I tried to tell her no, many times.”

Fuller also alleges CoreCivic attempted to stop him from sharing his version of events and from filing a lawsuit by retaliating against him in prison — throwing him into solitary confinement, and blocking him from calling lawyers and a sexual-assault reporting hotline.

Fuller and his lawyer, Tucson-based Stacy Scheff, are determined to make his account public. He didn't consent to sex, and he's being punished for trying to take legal action, they said.

Fuller tried for more than two months to reach Scheff and for a month to get through to the hotline, records show. He was also sentenced to 250 days in solitary confinement for violations that lacked evidence (the sentence was later reduced by 40 days). At one point, according to Fuller, the prison warden told him he had listened to Fuller's legal calls. In August, his prison bank account was inexplicably frozen; money his mother tried to send bounced back.

Fuller's complaint, which alleges violations of his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights for cruel and unusual punishment and for limiting his access to courts and to a sexual assault hotline, was filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona on December 13. It requests, chiefly, that Fuller be transferred to a different prison, "in order to stop the retaliation," as well as a declaration that Lopez, CoreCivic, and its employees named as defendants in the suit violated his constitutional rights.

This article is based on that complaint; written statements from Fuller and prison documents including inmate requests and disciplinary records totaling hundreds of pages that Scheff shared with New Times; court records from Lopez's criminal case; and police reports. New Times interviewed Fuller by phone, through Scheff. 

A History of Abuse

For those familiar with CoreCivic, Fuller's story might be unsurprising.

CoreCivic used to be known as Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, until it rebranded in 2016. It is the largest private corrections corporation in the United States. It operates immigrant detention centers, private prisons, and halfway houses.

For years, those facilities have come under scrutiny from California to Arizona to Oklahoma to New Jersey for inmate deaths and allegations including abuse and violence, falsification of reports, and generally miserable conditions.

In Arizona, CoreCivic operates seven facilities, including three private prisons. Saguaro Correctional Center, in Eloy, houses about 1,500 inmates from several other states, primarily Hawaii. The prison originally was built to hold prisoners from that state because it's far cheaper to incarcerate people in prisons on the mainland than in Hawaii.

Fuller is in his final year of a 10-year sentence for robbery at Saguaro. He is scheduled to be released in September 2020, said Toni Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

Since June, two female CoreCivic employees, including Lopez, have been arrested for having sex with inmates. Under Arizona law, sex with an incarcerated person is unlawful sexual misconduct.

The institution's history of violence, sexual assault, and misconduct by correctional officers who receive little, if any, punishment, dates back much farther than this summer.

A few years ago, a Saguaro inmate sued CoreCivic, alleging that a counselor forced him to perform oral sex in summer 2016, during counseling sessions. The counselor maintained it was consensual; he later pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual conduct and was sentenced to one year in prison with probation. (A civil suit by the inmate was dismissed earlier this year.)

In 2011, a Hawaii inmate said an officer employed by CCA sexually assaulted him in his cell in 2009. The officer, Richard Ketland, was sentenced to probation after being charged with unlawful sexual contact, a felony.

Around the same time, the governor of Hawaii brought hundreds of inmates back from CCA-operated prisons in Arizona after 18 Hawaiians incarcerated at Saguaro alleged that guards beat and threatened to kill them and that the company also “deliberately destroyed and failed to preserve evidence of their wrongdoing, including videotapes” and “deliberately falsified reports.”

The Incident

In spring 2019, Christina Lopez and Justin Fuller developed a friendly relationship, according to Fuller's complaint. She began to tell him more and more about her personal life and her marriage.

According to Lopez's presentencing report, she claimed that she and Fuller were in a relationship "and talked daily about personal matters."

Around 3 p.m. on June 8, Lopez came into the communal area at K Unit, B Pod, the same area where Fuller's cell was located. She told Fuller she wanted to have sex that day, according to Fuller's complaint. He told her no, because he didn't want either of them to get into trouble, which would likely result in solitary confinement for him.

Lopez told him that surveillance cameras were down. Fuller didn't believe her. If the cameras were off, the prison would be on lockdown, he said, according to the complaint. He repeatedly refused, and eventually, he walked away.

Later that night, between 7 and 8 p.m., Lopez entered Fuller's cell, ostensibly for a pill call. His roommate was away using the phone, as he typically did around that time, according to the complaint.

There, Lopez demanded to have sex with Fuller, even as he pleaded with her to leave, according to the complaint. Eventually, Lopez assaulted him.

She grabbed his penis over his sweatpants and began kissing him on the neck, even as he tried to push her away, telling her she was "tripping!"

"That’s when she backed away unbuckling her belt and pants and told me that if I didn’t have sex with her she would make my life hell, but if I did then she would treat me like a king," he wrote in a statement.

Fuller felt "instantly mentally challenged, confused, paranoid," he wrote in a statement. He surrendered to Lopez, feeling "coerced beyond his ability to resist," according to the complaint. It was the first and only time they had sex, both of their accounts said.

Every day for the next few weeks, she threatened him, according to Fuller.  If he told on her, she said, she would say that Fuller had raped her, Fuller said. But she also brought him sandwiches and cookies from Subway, which Fuller interpreted as bribery for his silence, the complaint stated — "her way of treating him 'like a king.'" 

The account in Lopez's presentencing report is very different from Fuller's narrative.

It stated that Fuller asked Lopez to bring drugs into the prison, which she declined to do. Then, Fuller asked her to come to his cell on the night of June 8 to have sex, and that he asked Fuller's roommate to leave the cell for a bit because his "girl" was coming by.

Lopez, who had been a corrections officer with CoreCivic for a year and had also spent 12 years as a detention officer with the Gila County Sheriff's Office, described the incident as "a lapse in judgment," the presentence report stated. She denied to police that she had used her power as a correctional officer to force Fuller to have sex with her.

The Investigation

On June 24, Fuller was called to the office to speak with two CoreCivic investigators.

"What's this all about?" Fuller recalled asking them.

"You tell me," he said the investigators replied, before saying that they had seen Lopez enter his cell on June 8 and wanted to know what happened.

Later, officers would write in a disciplinary report that Fuller would tell them he was sleeping that evening, but Fuller said that investigators were lying about that, and that Fuller actually said he wanted legal counsel.

They threatened him with solitary confinement, saying, "It's gonna be hard to speak back there," he recalled to New Times, then handcuffed him and took him to a suicide cell. An hour later, they brought him back out, this time to speak with an Eloy police officer that CoreCivic had called after learning about possible criminal activity.

This time, Fuller spoke more, although he maintained that he wanted legal counsel. The officer said that Lopez said that Fuller had asked her to bring illicit drugs — "tobacco, weed, spice, and meth," transported inside her, an Eloy police officer wrote — into the prison. Had Fuller made such a request? the officer wanted to know.

Fuller denied it. "Absolutely not," he recalled telling the officer.

According to the police report from that night, Fuller denied ever having sexual contact with Lopez, but Fuller told New Times that he said something else.

He said he told police he wanted legal counsel and that he did not know anything about Lopez's claims that they'd had consensual sex. According to Fuller, when he asked police if he would be charged, police said no, because Fuller was a victim.

Afterward, Fuller was taken back to the chilly infirmary, and put in a suicide cell with boxers and a T-shirt and no shoes. He's been in some form of solitary confinement ever since.

"At that point, I knew it was on," he said. "Before I leave this place, I'm gonna make sure I expose this place."

The Rape Hotline

A fellow inmate lent Fuller a copy of Prisoners' Self-Help Litigation Manual, which he read three times. He began trying to contact lawyers and call a confidential prison sexual assault hotline run by the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Abuse, or SACASA, but he kept hitting mysterious administrative hurdles.

On July 5, he put in his first request to call the hotline, a number that he'd pulled "off the one of many posters hanging up on pod walls," he wrote in the request. Per prison policy, inmates can call only preapproved numbers.

No one responded to that request. At the bottom of the form, where staff members leave responses, someone jotted, "No response came back? Only a denied phone call request?"

On July 8, around 12:30 p.m., Fuller tried to call the hotline directly, but the number did not connect to anything. He tried for 10 minutes.

Officials then told him to dial *777 and leave a message. Fuller had his misgivings, knowing what dialing *777 meant, but he also knew that he had to exhaust all his remedies within the prison before he could file a lawsuit, so he obeyed.

For inmates at Saguaro, *777 is an internal reporting number that inmates have the option of calling anonymously to report problems. It leads to the warden, two assistant wardens, three chiefs, and the contract monitor. An investigator also gets an email alert, according to a glowing 2017 audit of Saguaro's compliance with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA.

Through an agreement with SACASA, it added, Saguaro "provides inmates ... with a 24-hour sexual assault crisis hotline." It noted, "The phones in all housing units are tested monthly to ensure that these reporting lines are accessible to inmates."

Not for Fuller. He had to be granted permission to call a SACASA advocate — and even after he received approval, in September the number would briefly and inexplicably disappear from his list of allowed phone numbers.

In response to questions about inmate access to the hotline, CoreCivic spokesperson Amanda Gilchrist referred New Times to the company's inmate handbook.

Those instructions are confusing — telling the inmate to dial the internal number *777, but also including three separate numbers and a PIN for anonymity to call the SACASA hotline. It leaves unclear whether inmates can call the hotline directly, or whether those phone numbers have to be preapproved — as Fuller experienced.

It wasn't until August 7, a month after Fuller first tried to call the SACASA hotline, that he was able to get through. He spoke with his SACASA advocate weekly, until September 10, when his call was mysteriously denied. Two CoreCivic employees told Fuller that they didn't understand why his access had been denied.

click to enlarge CoreCivic's detainee processing center in Houston. The company is the largest private prison operator in the U.S. - PETRICK FELLER VIA FLICKR
CoreCivic's detainee processing center in Houston. The company is the largest private prison operator in the U.S.

The Retaliation

On July 8, three hours after first trying to call the hotline, Fuller was pulled from his cell and taken to the office with the same officers who initially questioned him, along with Assistant Warden Benjamin Griego and others, he recounted in his complaint. They wanted him to sign a piece of paper that they said would be used to prosecute Lopez, the complaint said.

Fuller refused, saying he'd sign nothing without legal advice.

The wardens and others began mocking him. One officer said, "By law we have to treat you like a victim, but you are not a victim," according to the complaint.

The next day, two disciplinary reports were filed against Fuller. They claimed, without stating any evidence, that he had tried to convince an employee to bring contraband into the prison (if any contraband was ever found, it was not mentioned in the report) and that he had hindered the prison's investigation.

Fuller demanded evidence. Lopez had searched his cell once, maybe twice, he wrote, "but never 'several' times." No contraband was ever found, he said.

The following day — July 10 — another disciplinary report was filed against Fuller, claiming he had placed a large piece of plastic wrap on the wall "to avoid detection from correctional staff" and that he'd plugged the intercom inside his cell with toilet paper. Fuller took responsibility for the plastic wrap — he forgot to throw it out after breakfast, he wrote — "but I did not tamper with the intercom!" The inmate before him had done it, he said.

A week later, officers filed a fourth disciplinary report against him, based on blurry video surveillance footage, that Fuller joined in a scheme to bring goods from the commissary into the unit.

Fuller appealed all of the disciplinary reports, demanding evidence, to no avail. His punishment was 210 days in solitary confinement — on top of the weeks he had already spent in the suicide cell.

"Information is clear. The evidence is there and you know very well what you were doing," wrote Assistant Warden Griego in response to his appeal of the first disciplinary report, without citing the actual evidence.

Griego's rejection was almost the same for the second disciplinary report: "Proof is clear. There is plenty of evidence in this case."

Fuller's complaint described the disciplinary charges as "fabricated."

Legal Help Denied

Meanwhile, despite his best efforts to find legal help, Fuller was making little progress in reaching a lawyer. 

On July 9, he submitted a request to add an attorney to his list of allowed phone numbers. He wrote the lawyer's name, address, and a phone number, misspelling the first name by one letter. The phone number went to a senior legal assistant at the firm, not the attorney named, and his request was denied. "This is not the # listed for this attorney," the response came. "Submit paperwork verifying information."

Six days later, he tried again, with a different attorney's name and number. It too, was rejected — "this is not the number listed for the attorney" — even though the number he wrote is, in fact, listed for that attorney.

Justin Fuller
Hawaii Department of Public Safety

According to the complaint, a CoreCivic officer told Fuller that he had to prove that the lawyers he wanted to add to that list of phone numbers were his established lawyers. Fuller saw it as CoreCivic's attempt to stop him from reaching a lawyer at all.

The next day, on July 16, he filed a request to use the law library to research PREA policies. He was told that Hawaii inmates didn't have a law library in his unit and that it was open only to Nevada inmates. (CoreCivic eventually granted him access, some two months later.)

As Fuller sought legal assistance, he continued to push through the prison's byzantine grievance process, which inmates must exhaust if they want a civil suit to stand a chance in court. He submitted requests, followed by informal resolution forms, appeals, grievances, and more appeals.

Only after Fuller finally made a successful call to the SACASA hotline on August 7 was he able to indirectly reach a lawyer. That advocate reached out to an attorney, who suggested Scheff, whom the advocate then contacted, according to the complaint.

On August 20, Fuller received his phone call from Scheff, and he finally added her to his list of approved phone numbers so he could call her freely. 

But even as he spoke with her, he sensed, officers tried to intimidate him into dropping his lawsuit.

On September 17, Fuller wrote, he was on a legal call with Scheff. Assistant Warden Griego entered the room and said, "Tell your lawyer I said hi."

Later that month, according to the complaint, Warden Todd Thomas also told Fuller that the prison was listening to all of Fuller's legal calls — which is illegal.

"Warden Thomas replied that he could do what he wanted to and that his 'expensive lawyers' had told him he could listen to the calls," the complaint stated.

click to enlarge An overhead view of the prison where Justin Fuller, a Hawaii inmate, said he was raped and is being retaliated against. - GOOGLE MAPS
An overhead view of the prison where Justin Fuller, a Hawaii inmate, said he was raped and is being retaliated against.
Google Maps

Gilchrist, CoreCivic's spokesperson, declined to answer specific questions about Fuller and his allegations, citing company policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

"What I can tell you is we have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment, and we cooperate fully with law enforcement in their investigations of such matters," Gilchrist wrote.

She said CoreCivic could not accommodate New Times' request to interview Warden Thomas. Thomas did not return a voicemail left for him at Saguaro Correctional Facility.

Griego is no longer employed by CoreCivic, and Gilchrist declined to provide details regarding his departure. Griego could not be reached for comment.

In late August, Lopez pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct. She could not be reached by phone, and she did not respond to a Facebook message from New Times seeking comment. Her lawyer did not return a message seeking comment.

In response to questions, Hawaii Department of Public Safety spokesperson Toni Schwartz referred New Times to CoreCivic. In response to an interview request for Fuller, he wrote that New Times could request a phone call by mailing a letter to Fuller and asking him to call collect.

How Fuller would have a called a number that was not on his approved list remains unclear.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.