PHOENIX (AP) — A federal judge sharply questioned a state lawyer Monday after he asked her to dismiss a lawsuit from a teacher who says Corrections Department employees failed to protect her when she was raped by a convicted sex offender in a prison classroom.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton asked Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Weisbard how he could argue that the teacher wasn't placed in a dangerous situation by the warden and other top officials at the Eyman state prison complex in Florence, Arizona.
She also questioned how the teacher could have been responsible for her own safety when she entered the classroom to give a test. "Didn't she just do what she was required to do for her job?" Bolton asked.
The lawsuit blames corrections employees for failing to establish proper security. It also says the department's health care provider improperly assessed the mental health of convicted rapist Jacob Harvey, allowing him to be classified as a low-risk offender.
Harvey remains in prison and is awaiting trial on rape, assault and related charges in the attack on the teacher. He has pleaded not guilty.
The case raised questions about prison security after reports showed the teacher was put into a room full of sex offenders with no guards nearby. Authorities have said Harvey lingered behind after others left the room on Jan. 30, 2014, then repeatedly stabbed the teacher with a pen before raping her.
Details were first reported by The Associated Press after an open records request, and state officials have since launched an investigation into prison safety practices.
The AP does not identify those who report being victims of sexual assault.
Weisbard wrote in his brief that the teacher routinely worked in classrooms and that there is always a risk of assault when working with prisoners. He argued the case should be dismissed because the teacher can't show the defendants she sued had actual knowledge of or willfully ignored impending harm.
"How these defendants were chosen is a mystery at this point," Weisbard told Bolton at Monday's hearing. He said in a written briefing that the teacher wasn't placed in an abnormal situation.
Bolton appeared to disagree, although she said she'd issue a ruling later. "This was a dangerous situation — we know that," she said.
The teacher's lawyer says there's nothing normal about his client being placed unguarded in a classroom with convicted sex offenders.
Attorney Scott Zwillinger told Bolton that Warden Ron Credio, a deputy warden and other prison officials didn't protect the teacher, who was neither armed nor trained to defend herself. "They failed in their duties, and they created the situation that led the harm to my client," he said.
The teacher also is suing prison health care provider Corizon Health Inc. The company's lawyers also are asking that the case be dismissed and deny wrongdoing.
The teacher sat with her lawyer in court while her parents watched from the visitor's gallery. A claim she made against the state before filing the lawsuit sought $4 million.
In a September interview with the AP, she said she primarily blamed Corrections Director Charles Ryan for putting her in danger. She said rampant understaffing meant no one checked on her while she was in the classroom.
"Safety's got to come before everything, and there's just this attitude that we have the number of staff we need because we say we do," she said.
Ryan has not responded to requests for comment, but a prison spokesman has called the rape "a cowardly and despicable crime, for which the inmate is rightfully facing prosecution" and said safety is always paramount.