Women’s prison in California fostered culture of abuse, inmates say

Inside one of the only federal women’s prisons in the United States, inmates say they have been subjected to rampant sexual abuse by correctional officers and even the warden, and were often threatened or punished when they tried to speak up.

Prisoners and workers at the federal correctional institution in Dublin, Calif., even have a name for it: “The rape club.”

An Associated Press investigation has found a permissive and toxic culture at the Bay Area lockup, enabling years of sexual misconduct by predatory employees and cover-ups that have largely kept the abuse out of the public eye.

The AP obtained internal federal Bureau of Prisons documents, statements and recordings from inmates, interviewed current and former prison employees and inmates and reviewed thousands of pages of court records from criminal and civil cases involving Dublin prison staff.

Together, they detail how inmates’ allegations against members of the mostly male staff were ignored or set aside, how prisoners could be sent to solitary confinement for reporting abuse and how officials in charge of preventing and investigating sexual misconduct were themselves accused of abusing inmates or neglecting their concerns.

In one instance, a female inmate said a man, who was her prison work supervisor, taunted her by remarking, “let the games begin,” when he assigned her to work with a maintenance foreman she accused of rape. Another worker claimed he wanted to get inmates pregnant. The warden — the man in charge at Dublin — kept nude photos on his government-issued cellphone of a woman he is accused of assaulting.

One inmate said she was “overwhelmed with fear, anxiety, and anger, and cried uncontrollably” after enduring abuse and retaliation at Dublin. Another said she contemplated suicide when her cries for help went unheeded and now suffers from severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

All sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional employees enjoy substantial power over inmates, controlling every aspect of their lives from mealtime to lights out, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent.

The allegations at Dublin, which so far have resulted in four arrests, are endemic of a larger problem within the beleaguered Bureau of Prisons. In 2020, the same year some of the women at Dublin complained, there were 422 complaints of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse across the system of 122 prisons and 153,000 inmates. The agency said it substantiated only four of those complaints and that 290 are still being investigated. It would not say whether the allegations were concentrated in women’s prisons or spread throughout the system.

A hotbed of corruption and misconduct, the federal prison system has been plagued by myriad crises in recent years, including widespread criminal activity among employees, critically low staffing levels that have hampered responses to emergencies, the rapid spread of COVID-19, a failed response to the pandemic and dozens of escapes. Last month, the embattled director, Michael Carvajal, announced he was resigning. On Monday, two inmates were killed in a gang clash at a federal penitentiary in Texas, prompting a nationwide lockdown.

The AP contacted lawyers for every Dublin prison employee charged with sexual abuse or named as a defendant in a lawsuit alleging abuse, and tried reaching the men directly through available phone numbers and email addresses. None responded to interview requests. A government lawyer representing one of the men being sued declined comment.

Thahesha Jusino, taking over as Dublin’s warden at the end of the month, promised to “work tirelessly to reaffirm the Bureau of Prisons’ zero tolerance for sexual abuse and sexual harassment.”

She said the agency is fully cooperating with the Justice Department’s inspector general on active investigations and noted that a “vast majority” of these cases were referred for investigation by the Bureau of Prisons itself.

“I am committed to ensuring the safety of our inmates, staff, and the public,” Jusino said in a statement to the AP. “A culture of misconduct, or actions not representative of the BOP’s Core Values will not be tolerated.”

The Justice Department said in a statement that “Zero tolerance means exactly that. The Justice Department is committed to both holding accountable any staff who violate their position of trust and to preventing these crimes from happening in the first place.”

FCI Dublin, about 21 miles east of Oakland, was opened in 1974. It was converted in 2012 to one of six women-only facilities in the federal prison system. Actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman both served time there for their involvement in a college admissions bribery scandal.

As of Feb. 1, it had about 750 inmates, many serving sentences for drug crimes. There are increasingly more women behind bars but they are still a minority — only about 6.5% of the overall federal inmate population.

Union officials say the vast majority of Dublin employees are honest and hardworking, and are upset that the allegations and actions of some workers have tarnished the prison’s reputation.

“We have a diversified staff. We have veterans. We have ex-law enforcement. We have good people, and they’re very traumatized,” Dublin union president Ed Canales said.

Inmates and prison workers who spoke to the AP did not want their names published for fear of retaliation. The AP also does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission.

Women made the first internal complaints to staff members about five years ago, court records and internal agency documents show, but it’s not clear whether those complaints ever went anywhere. The women say they were largely ignored, and the abuse continued.

One inmate who reported a 2017 sexual assault said she was told nothing would be done about her complaint because it was a “he said-she said.” The woman, who is now suing the Bureau of Prisons over her treatment, said she was fired from her prison commissary job as retaliation. When she went to report her firing, she said a Dublin counselor took her abuser’s side, responding: “Child, do you want him to lose his job?” The woman was moved to a different prison a week later.

In 2019, another Dublin inmate sued — first on her own with handwritten papers, then with the backing of a powerful San Francisco law firm — alleging that a maintenance foreman repeatedly raped her and that other workers facilitated the abuse and mocked her for it. When an internal prison investigator finally caught wind of what was happening, the woman said she was the one who got punished with three months in solitary confinement and a transfer to a federal prison in Alabama.

Then, in 2020, another inmate’s report that Dublin workers were abusing inmates broke through to the Justice Department’s inspector general and the FBI, triggering a criminal investigation that has led to the arrest of four employees, including former warden Ray J. Garcia, in the past seven months. They each face up to 15 years in prison, though in other recent cases, sentences have ranged from three months to two years.

Two of the men are expected to plead guilty in the coming weeks in federal court to charges of sexual abuse of a ward. None of the men accused in civil suits has been charged with crimes. Several Dublin workers are under investigation, though it’s not clear whether the men accused in the civil suits are among them.

The FBI said Friday that it is continuing to investigate and is looking for anyone who may have been victimized to come forward and speak with agents.

The former warden, arrested last September, is accused of molesting an inmate as she tried to push him away. Garcia made her and another inmate strip naked as he did rounds and took pictures that were found on his personal laptop computer and government-issued cellphone when the FBI raided his office and home last summer, prosecutors said. The abuse ended when the pandemic exploded and women were locked in their cells, they said. Garcia was later promoted; the Bureau of Prisons said it didn’t know about the abuse until later.

“If they’re undressing, I’ve already looked,” Garcia, 54, told the FBI in July 2021, according to court records. “I don’t, like, schedule a time like ‘you be undressed, and I’ll be there.’”

Garcia, who was placed on leave after the raid and retired a month after his arrest, is also accused of using his authority to intimidate one of his victims, telling her that he was “close friends” with the person responsible for investigating staff misconduct and boasting that he could not be fired, prosecutors said.

Ross Klinger, 36, a Dublin prison recycling technician, is scheduled to plead guilty Thursday to charges he sexually abused at least two inmates between March and September 2020, including inside a warehouse and in a shipping container on prison grounds while another inmate acted as a lookout.

Klinger told the women he wanted to marry them and father their children, even proposing to one of them with a diamond ring after she was discharged to a halfway house, prosecutors said. Another prisoner aware of the abuse reported Klinger to the Bureau of Prisons in June 2020, according to the FBI, but he was still allowed to transfer to a federal jail in San Diego months later.

Despite the move, prosecutors said, Klinger kept contacting one victim through an email address he created with a phony name, sometimes sending lewd messages referencing sexual acts, and messaged the other woman on Snapchat, saying he loved her and was “willing to do anything” for her.

Interviewed by investigators in April 2021, Klinger denied any wrongdoing, but said that because of the allegations his life was over and that he was concerned about going to prison and being labeled as a sex offender. He was in handcuffs two months later.

“Sexual misconduct of a ward, you can’t come back from that,” Klinger told investigators in the interview, according to court documents.

John Russell Bellhouse, 39, a prison safety administrator, is scheduled to be arraigned this month on charges he sexually abused an inmate he called his “girlfriend” from February to December 2020. He was placed on leave in March and arrested in December.

James Theodore Highhouse, 49, a prison chaplain, has already signed a plea agreement and is scheduled to plead guilty Feb. 23 to charges he put his penis on an inmate’s genitals, mouth and hand and masturbated in front of her in 2018 and 2019, and that he lied to investigators when questioned about the abuse. He was arrested last month.

Garcia, the highest-ranking federal prison official arrested in more than 10 years, had an outsize influence as warden over how Dublin handled employee sexual misconduct. He led staff and inmate training on reporting abuse and complying with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, known as PREA, and had control over staff discipline, including in cases of sexual abuse. In his prior role as associate warden, he had had disciplinary authority over all inmates, but not staff.

He was also in charge of the legally required “rape elimination” compliance audit, first scheduled for early 2020 but not completed until last September — about the time he was arrested. The Bureau of Prisons blamed the pandemic for the delay and said the audit, Dublin’s first since 2017, is not yet finalized and cannot be made public.

In private, Garcia was flouting measures put in place to protect inmates from sexual abuse and he later panicked that he would get caught for his own alleged misbehavior, court records show. The woman Garcia is accused of assaulting told investigators that one instance of abuse happened while PREA officials were visiting the prison. Garcia assaulted her in a changing stall designed for PREA-compliant searches, she said.

Publicly, Garcia appeared to take a hard line on abuse. In one of his first acts after he was named warden in November 2020, he recommended firing the maintenance foreman William Martinez, accused of rape in the 2019 suit — albeit for what the staff disciplinary process narrowed to a finding of an “appearance of an inappropriate relationship with an inmate.”

Martinez has denied the allegations and has filed a discrimination complaint against the Bureau of Prisons with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He has not been charged with a crime.

Garcia tasked another official with making a final decision on punishment and that person reduced the penalty to a 15-day suspension, but even that was later overturned. Internal documents obtained by the AP show that prison officials failed to look into the allegations against Martinez for nearly two years and then, after the investigation finished, waited another year to propose discipline.

An administrative judge wrote in June that the prison’s protracted investigation “strains credulity” on a matter as serious as alleged sexual abuse.

But the judge also found that prison officials cherry-picked evidence to bolster their case, only to end up unraveling it. He reversed the suspension and ordered the Bureau of Prisons to provide back pay.

Sisak reported from New York.

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