AP investigation: Women’s prison fostered culture of abuse
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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, California, 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 Bureau of Prisons documents, statements and recordings from inmates, interviewed current and former prison employees 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 kept nude photos on his government-issued cellphone of a woman he is accused of assaulting, prosecutors say.
One inmate said she was “overwhelmed with fear, anxiety, and anger, and cried uncontrollably” after enduring abuse and retaliation. 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 federal Bureau of Prisons. In 2020, 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 them and that 290 are still being investigated.
The Associated Press 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.
Thahesha Jusino, taking over as Dublin’s warden later this 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 a statement to the AP. “A culture of misconduct, or actions not representative of the BOP’s Core Values will not be tolerated.”
FCI Dublin, about 21 miles (34 kilometers) east of Oakland, is one of six women-only facilities in the federal prison system. As of Feb. 1, it had about 750 inmates, many of them serving sentences for drug crimes.
Women made the first internal complaints to staff members about five years ago, court records and internal agency documents show, but it is unclear whether those complaints ever went anywhere. The women say they were largely ignored, and the abuse continued.
One 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 suing the Bureau of Prisons over her treatment, said she was fired from her prison commissary job as retaliation.
In 2019, another Dublin inmate alleged in a suit 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, an inmate’s report that two Dublin workers were abusing inmates made its way 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 are expected to plead guilty in the coming weeks in federal court to charges of sexual abuse of a ward. Several other Dublin workers are under investigation.
Garcia is accused of molesting an inmate in the months before the pandemic began. Then the associate warden, Garcia made her and another inmate strip naked as did rounds and took pictures that were found on his government-issued cell phone and computer when the FBI raided his office and home last summer, prosecutors said. He would later be promoted.
“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, the highest-ranking federal prison official arrested in more than 10 years, had an outsize influence as warden over how Dublin handling of employee sexual misconduct. He led staff and inmate training on reporting abuse and complying with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
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 can’t be made public.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission.
Sisak reported from New York.