FBI again searches federal women’s prison plagued by sexual abuse

Federal investigators on Monday again searched a troubled women’s prison in California, seizing computers and documents in an apparent escalation of a yearslong sexual abuse investigation that previously led to charges against a former warden and other employees.

More than a dozen FBI agents were at the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin, a person familiar with the matter told the Associated Press. The warden, an associate warden and a captain were removed from the facility, said the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did so on the condition of anonymity.

FBI agents could be seen carrying boxes out of the prison, which has been known as the “rape club” because of years of rampant staff-on-inmate abuse. The FBI confirmed agents were there conducting “court-authorized law enforcement activity,” but declined to give details.

A message seeking comment was left with the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Monday’s search came days after a new wave of civil lawsuits alleging abuse at FCI Dublin and as a federal judge weighs appointing a special master to oversee the prison’s operations. It’s the latest cloud over the low-security facility about 21 miles (34 kilometers) east of Oakland.

An AP investigation in 2021 found a culture of abuse and cover-ups that had persisted for years at the prison, which has more than 650 inmates. That reporting led to increased scrutiny from Congress and pledges from the Bureau of Prisons that it would fix problems and change the culture at the prison.

At least eight employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. Five have pleaded guilty. Two were convicted at trial. Another case is pending.

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 scandal has been one of many troubles plaguing the federal Bureau of Prisons, which is also beset by rampant staffing shortages, suicides and security breaches.

Former Dublin warden Ray Garcia was convicted in 2022 of molesting inmates and forcing them to pose naked in their cells. Prosecutors say he tried to keep his victims quiet with promises that he’d help them get early release and told one victim he was close friends with a prison official responsible for investigating staff misconduct and couldn’t be fired.

The FBI arrested Garcia in September 2021, months after questioning him at the prison and searching his office and vehicle. He is serving a six-year prison sentence.

Testifying on his own behalf, Garcia conceded that he had made mistakes but claimed that some of his alleged wrongdoing — like taking pictures of naked inmates — was done as part of his official duties to document violations of prison policy.

Prosecutors countered by calling a prison lieutenant who said he’s never seen a case where it was appropriate for an employee to take photos of a nude inmate.

Among the other employees accused of sexual abuse were former chaplain James Theodore Highhouse, who was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to abusing an inmate in his chapel office and lying to authorities, and ex-safety administrator John Russell Bellhouse, who was convicted last June of sexually abusing two inmates.

Prosecutors said Bellhouse “began to express an interest in a particular female inmate and started calling the inmate his ‘girlfriend'” in 2020. They said he inappropriately touched the woman and that she performed oral sex on Bellhouse twice in the prison’s safety office. He was sentenced to more than five years in prison.


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