California women’s prison rocked by ‘rape club’ abuse scandals to be closed

A women’s prison in California so plagued by sexual abuse that it was known among inmates and workers as the “rape club” will be closed, the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced Monday

Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters said that the agency is closing the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, where more than a half dozen correctional officers and the former warden have either been charged or convicted of sexually abusing the female inmates.

Peters stated that the bureau had “taken unprecedented steps and provided a tremendous amount of resources to address culture, recruitment and retention, aging infrastructure — and most critical — employee misconduct.”

“Despite these steps and resources, we have determined that FCI Dublin is not meeting expected standards and that the best course of action is to close the facility. This decision is being made after ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of those unprecedented steps and additional resources.”

She said, “planning for deactivation is currently ongoing” for the prison that houses 605 inmates. The facility east of Oakland is one of a handful of federal women’s prisons in the Western states.

“It is a remarkable admission,” said attorney Michael Bien, whose law firm represents inmates in a class-action lawsuit over conditions at the prisons. Prison authorities are “saying they can’t operate this prison safely.” He said closure doesn’t address the underlying issue. “How does this solve the problems? The same policy and procedures are in place at other prisons. It is not the building that did anything wrong.”

Bien said attorneys representing Dublin inmates had not been informed of the closure announcement. He added that a federal judge had just been appointed a special master for the prison in connection with the class-action lawsuit and that same judge had ordered that anyone involved in the proceedings cannot be transferred from Dublin without her authorization.

The women housed at Dublin will be transferred to other facilities as near as possible to their release location and no employees will lose their jobs due to the closure, according to Peters. The long-term fate of the federal facility is unclear. “The closure of the facility may be temporary but result in a mission change,” she said. Inmates of the prison have included actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman after their convictions in the college admissions scandal.

The developments are the latest twist in a years-long scandal surrounding the facility. Since an FBI investigation was launched and resulted in arrests in 2021, eight FCI Dublin employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. Five have pleaded guilty, and two have been convicted by juries. Another employee is slated to go on trial this year.

The announcement comes after the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the prison last month and Warden Art Dulgov — just a few months into his tenure — and three other top managers were removed from their positions by the federal Bureau of Prisons.

U.S. Rep Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said “the FBI investigation of the facility shed light on a toxic culture enabling years of sexual misconduct by employees with five pleading guilty to associated charges and two convicted by juries of everyday Californians.”

Dulgov was the third new leader of the low-security prison since Warden Ray J. Garcia, who, along with more than half a dozen employees, was convicted of sexually assaulting multiple women serving time there.

Dulgov and staff are accused of retaliating against an inmate who testified in January in the class-action lawsuit that alleges “horrific abuse and exploitation” at the prison, with rampant sexual assault of incarcerated persons, according to a court filing.

Last month, a correctional officer who worked at FCI Dublin was sentenced to 72 months in federal prison. Nakie Nunley pleaded guilty to sexually abusing five female inmates and admitted to engaging in sex acts with two other women being held at the facility. All of his victims worked at a call center operated by Federal Prison Industries at the prison, where he supervised them.

Last year, Warden Garcia was sentenced to 70 months in prison for sexually abusing incarcerated women and lying to the FBI as part of a cover-up.

The FBI raid came after the then-warden transferred an inmate who was a witness in a lawsuit against the prison, violating a judge’s court order that witnesses not be moved without the court’s approval.

In the wake of the raid, Nancy T. McKinney, a top regional Bureau of Prisons supervisor, was appointed interim warden of Dublin. She is the fourth person to hold the office since Garcia was removed from the position.

FBI spokeswoman Cameron Polan told The Times that the FBI raid involved a “court-authorized law enforcement activity at that location.” In addition to paperwork, computers were removed from the prison, according to a source familiar with the ongoing investigation.

The raid was conducted as the number of women who have come forward in lawsuits against guards and staff alleging sexual abuse and retaliation has climbed beyond 63. That number, according to attorneys, is expected to surpass 100.

It is a crime for any prison employee to engage in sexual activity with an incarcerated person, and someone behind bars cannot consent.

In February, KTVU first reported that an incarcerated woman, Rhonda Fleming, was put in the special housing unit — a common prison punishment — and transferred to a facility in Los Angeles against a judge’s orders after she testified about the culture at FCI Dublin during a January hearing in a civil case filed on behalf of incarcerated people at the prison.

After learning of Fleming’s transfer, U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ordered prison authorities to return her to Dublin.

In March 2023, the judge referred to the prison’s “culture of sexual abuse” in sentencing Garcia, the former warden, whom she said had perpetuated that culture.

A federal jury in Oakland found him guilty of three counts of sex with an incarcerated person, four counts of abusive sexual contact and one count of lying to the FBI.

He groped three incarcerated women and made them pose naked for photos. Before his sentencing, one of his victims told Garcia: “You are a predator and a pervert. You are a disgrace to the federal government.”

In 2022, onetime prison chaplain James Theodore Highhouse was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for sexually assaulting a female inmate at FCI Dublin. Highhouse engaged in predatory conduct with at least six women from 2014 to 2019, according to prosecutors. He claimed God had brought them together, quoting the Bible and referencing King David’s many wives as justification for his actions.

“There is a culture of rot at Dublin,” another federal judge declared at Highhouse’s sentencing. “It’s important the world see this egregious conduct and see this serious penalty.”

The class-action lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons alleges that FCI Dublin and other federal agencies failed to prevent, detect and investigate sexual abuse, placing those being held at the prison at substantial risk of sexual assault. The prison also houses transgender and nonbinary persons.

The lawsuit alleges that as correctional officers were being sentenced, other guards continued to sexually harass, grope and assault those being held and subject some individuals to “transphobic harassment.”

Allegations of sexual assault at Dublin stretch back to the 1990s. Four employees were previously convicted of sexual abuse of inmates. Those incidents, along with civil litigation, forced the prison to commit to reforms.

But lawyers say those reforms were “ultimately ineffective or abandoned.” By the early 2010s, they note, “a dozen FCI Dublin employees were removed for sexual abuse, including one who videotaped himself having sex with inmates and stored tapes in a prison locker — but none were arrested.”

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