WASHINGTON (AP), — Inmates at one of the United States’ only federal women’s prisons claim they were subject to sexual abuse from correctional officers and even their warden. They also claimed that they were threatened with punishment or worse when they spoke out.
The federal correctional institution in Dublin has a nickname for its workers and prisoners: “The Rape Club.”
A Associated Press investigation revealed that the Bay Area Lockup had a toxic and permissive culture. This allowed years of sexual misconduct by the Bay Area employees, and covered-ups that have largely kept the abuse from the public eye.
The Associated Press obtained documents from the federal Bureau of Prisons, including statements, recordings, and transcripts from inmates. They also interviewed prison employees and ex-inmates.
They show how allegations made by inmates against male staff members were dismissed or ignored, how prisoners could be sent into solitary confinement to report abuse, and how officials responsible for investigating and preventing sexual misconduct were accused of neglecting inmates’ concerns.
One female prisoner claimed that a man who was her prison work supervisor taunted her when he assigned her work with a maintenance worker she had accused of rape. Another worker claimed that he wanted inmates to become pregnant. The warden, the man in charge of Dublin, kept nude photos of a woman he was accused of assaulting on his government-issued cell phone.
After suffering abuse and retaliation at Dublin, one inmate claimed she felt “overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, anger, and tears, and that it was difficult to control her emotions.” Another inmate said that she considered suicide after her pleas for help were ignored. She now has severe anxiety and post-traumatic Stress disorder.
It is illegal for a prison worker to have sex with an inmate. Inmates have a lot of power, including the ability to control their daily lives, from meals to light out, and they can’t consent.
Four arrests have been made in Dublin over allegations that have led to a wider problem at the Bureau of Prisons. There were 422 allegations of sexual abuse by staff members in the system of 122 prisons, which included 153,000 inmates, in 2020, the year that some Dublin women complained. According to the agency, it has only confirmed four of those complaints. The investigation into the remaining 290 is ongoing. The agency did not specify whether the allegations were contained in women’s prisons, or spread across the system.
The federal prison system is a hotbed for corruption and misconduct. In recent years, it has been subject to a number of crises, including widespread criminal activity among staff, low staffing levels that have hindered emergency response, rapid spread of COVID-19 and failed response to the pandemic, and many escapes. Michael Carvajal announced last month that he would be resigning as the director. Two inmates were killed during a gang fight at a Texas federal penitentiary, prompting a national lockdown.
The Associated Press reached out to the lawyers of every Dublin prisoner charged with sexual abuse. None of the men responded to interviews requests. One of the men being sued was represented by a government lawyer, but he declined to comment.
Thahesha Jusino was elected Dublin’s warden and promised to work tirelessly to affirm the Bureau of Prisons’ “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse.
She stated that the agency was fully cooperating with Justice Department’s inspector General on active investigations, and pointed out that the Bureau of Prisons had been referred to these cases for further investigation.
Jusino stated in a statement to AP that he was committed to ensuring safety for our inmates, staff and the public. “A culture that encourages misconduct or other actions not consistent with the Core Values of the BOP will not be tolerated.”
In a statement, the Justice Department stated that “zero tolerance” means precisely that. The Justice Department is determined to hold any staff members responsible for violating their trust position and prevent these crimes from ever happening.
FCI Dublin was established in 1974 and is located approximately 21 miles (34 km) east of Oakland. In 2012, it was made one of six federal women-only prisons. There were two actresses, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin who served time for their involvement with a college admissions corruption scandal.
It had approximately 750 inmates as of February 1, many of whom were serving sentences for drug offenses. While there are more women in federal prisons, they still make up a small percentage of federal inmates — 6.5%.
Officials from the Union claim that most Dublin employees are honest and hardworking and they are disappointed by the negative publicity caused by the actions and allegations of some prisoners.
“We have a diverse staff. We have veterans. Ex-law enforcement is available. “We have good people and they’re very traumatized,” Ed Canales, president of the Dublin union, stated.
Prison workers and inmates who spoke with the AP didn’t want their names published out of fear of retaliation. Unless they give permission, the AP does not usually identify victims of sexual assault.
According to court records and documents from internal agencies, women made their first internal complaint about abuse five years ago. However, it is not clear if those complaints were ever heard. They claim that they were ignored and that the abuse went on.
One female inmate who had reported a 2017 assault on her partner said that she was told nothing because her complaint was “he said-she spoke.” She also claimed that she was fired as her prison commissary job was in retaliation. She reported her firing to the Dublin counselor who responded: “Child. Do you want him lose his job?” A week later, she was moved to another prison.
Another Dublin inmate filed a lawsuit in 2019 — first with handwritten papers and then with the support of a powerful San Francisco legal firm. She claimed that a maintenance foreman had repeatedly raped and that other workers were involved in the abuse. The woman claimed that she was the one punished by an internal prison investigator who discovered the truth. She was sentenced to three months in isolation and transferred to a federal prison in Alabama.
In 2020, another inmate reported that Dublin workers were abusing prisoners. This triggered a criminal investigation which led to the arrests of four employees, Ray J. Garcia and three others. Each of them could spend up to 15 years prison. However, in recent cases sentences have varied from three months to two.
In the next few weeks, two of the men will plead guilty to sexual abuse of a child in federal court. None of the civil suit defendants have been charged with any crime. A number of Dublin workers are being investigated, although it is not clear if the men in civil suits are one of them.
Friday’s FBI statement stated that the FBI is still investigating and inviting anyone who might have been victims to speak up with agents.
Last September, Garcia was arrested for molesting an inmate while she tried to push him away. Prosecutors said Garcia made Garcia and another inmate strip naked while he was doing rounds. He also took photos that were stored on his laptop computer and a government-issued phone. The FBI raided Garcia’s home and office last summer. They said that the abuse was over when the pandemic burst and that women were kept in their cells. Garcia was promoted later; the Bureau of Prisons claimed that it did not know about the abuse until much later.
According to court records, Garcia, 54, stated that if they are undressing, he has already seen them. “I don’t schedule a time like “you be undressed” and I’ll be there.”
Garcia was put on leave following the raid, and he retired one month later. He is also accused of using authority to intimidate a victim. He told her that he was “close friends with the person responsible” for investigating staff misconduct, and boasted that he couldn’t be fired.
Ross Klinger (36), a Dublin prison recycling technician is set to plead guilty to sexual abuse charges between March 2020 and September 2020. He was also accused of abusing at least two prisoners inside a warehouse, in a shipping container, and while another inmate served as a watchman.
Klinger claimed that he wanted the women to marry him and have children. He even proposed to one of them with his diamond ring, after she was released from a halfway house. According to the FBI, Klinger was reported to the Bureau of Prisons by another prisoner who saw the abuse in June 2020. However, he was allowed to transfer to a federal San Diego jail months later.
Prosecutors said that Klinger continued to contact one victim via an email address with a fake name. He sometimes sent lewd messages about sexual acts and messaged another woman on Snapchat.
Klinger was interviewed by investigators in April 2021. He denied any wrongdoing but stated that his life was over because of the allegations and that he was worried about going to prison. Klinger was handcuffed two months later.
According to court documents, Klinger stated that sexual misconduct committed by a ward is something you cannot get back from.
John Russell Bellhouse (39), a prison safety administrator is set to be arraigned on March 1st. He faces charges of sexual abuse against an inmate he called “his girlfriend” between February and December 2020. He was put on leave in March, and arrested in December.
James Theodore Highhouse (49), a prison chaplain has already signed a plea deal and will plead guilty Feb. 23, to charges that he used his penis to touch an inmate’s mouth, genitals and hand, and masturbated before her in 2018-2019. He also admitted to lying to investigators about the abuse. He was taken into custody last month.
Garcia, who was the most senior federal prison official in over ten years, had a large influence on Dublin’s handling of sexual misconduct. He was responsible for inmate and staff training in reporting abuse, as well as compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (known as PREA). He also had authority over staff discipline, even in cases of sexual abuse. As associate warden, he was able to impose discipline on all inmates but not staff.
He was also responsible for the “rape elimination compliance audit”, which was originally scheduled for 2020, but was not completed until September last year — around the time he was taken into custody. The Bureau of Prisons claimed that the pandemic was responsible for the delay. They also stated that the audit, Dublin’s first since 2017, has not been completed and cannot be published.
Court records reveal that Garcia, in private, was flouting the measures to protect inmates against sexual abuse. He later panicked about being caught for his own misbehaviors, which he did, according to court records. According to investigators, Garcia was accused of assaulting a woman who Garcia visited at the prison. She claimed Garcia attacked her in a changing room meant for PREA-compliant searches.
Garcia was known to be a strong advocate for abuse. One of his first acts as warden, in November 2020, was to recommend that William Martinez be fired, who was accused of rape. However, the staff disciplinary process found only an “appearance in an inappropriate relationship” with an inmate.
Martinez denied the allegations and filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He has not been accused of a crime.
Garcia asked another official to make the final decision about punishment. That person reduced Garcia’s penalty to a 15 day suspension, but that was later overturned. According to internal documents, the AP found that Martinez’s allegations were not investigated by prison officials for almost two years. After the investigation was completed, they waited another year before proposing discipline.
In June, an administrative judge wrote that the prolonged investigation in prison “strains credulity on a matter so serious as alleged sexual abuse.”
The judge found that prison officials had cherry-picked evidence to support their case and ended up dissecting it. He revoked the suspension and ordered that the Bureau of Prisons pay back the money.