Prison interior. Jail cells, dark background.

A former employee of the private prison operator CoreCivic has filed a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations for gender-based discrimination and retaliation against her while working in a prison in Colorado.

Danette Karapetian wrote in her complaint to the U.S. District Court for Colorado that CoreCivic hired her as a licensed practical nurse in September 2017 to provide medical care to inmates at the Bent County Correctional Facility. She described how the nurses used nicknames while at work to prevent prisoners from learning their real identities. When a coworker asked Karapetian how she chose her nickname, “DJ,” she responded that she had once competed in a bikini modeling competition and used that stage name.

After other employees heard the story, Karapetian said, “gossip and rumors” spread. She noticed that her supervisor became “extremely and irrationally angry” at Karapetian and the supervisor allegedly “began concocting a story in her head that Ms. Karapetian was engaging in sexually inappropriate flirting behavior with the inmates."

In July 2018, Karapetian conveyed her concerns about prisoner care to her supervisor, but the supervisor purportedly became enraged at her interactions with inmates. When Karapetian sought to make a complaint about the supervisor to the assistant warden, another employee warned her, “I’m not threatening you. I’m telling you. Stay away from” the supervisor.

Karapetian went through with the complaint. Subsequently, she alleges, the supervisor canceled routine blood sugar tests for diabetic inmates. When Karapetian said that the affected inmates were complaining about low blood sugar, the supervisor allegedly countered, “Are you sure they’re here for the finger sticks, or are they here for something else?” Karapetian took that to mean that the inmates were seeking sexual relations with her rather than medical assistance.

For the rest of her employment, Karapetian wrote, the supervisor retaliated against her, “both by looking for any reason to unjustifiably criticize Ms. Karapetian’s job performance and by making Ms. Karapetian fear for her safety so she would feel compelled to quit.”

The supervisor eventually removed Karapetian from the work schedule, saying that her nursing licence had expired despite a grace period for renewal. CoreCivic allegedly told her that it would conduct an investigation, but instead, the company never returned her to the work schedule, thus ending her employment.

Karapetian claims that CoreCivic discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of federal civil rights law and created a hositile work environment for her.

“After Plaintiff complained of discrimination and retaliation in writing in late July 2018, Defendants continued to retaliate against Plaintiff,” she wrote in her lawsuit, “including by subjecting Plaintiff to disproportionate scrutiny, holding Plaintiff to higher standards than her male peers, [and] holding Plaintiff to higher standards than female peers who conformed to sex stereotypes." Karapetian also cited retaliation after she raised concerns over patient care.

A spokesperson for CoreCivic responded that employees have multiple options to report the types of conduct Karapetian said she experienced, including by contacting human resources. "While we can't speak to the specifics of pending litigation, CoreCivic does not tolerate any forms of sexual harassment and takes these allegations very seriously," the spokesperson said.

The case is Danette Karapetian v. CoreCivic, Inc.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from CoreCivic.

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