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 prison. 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 as 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, Peters said. 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.

“It is an unprecedented move to opt for closure,” said Amaris Montes, director of West Coast litigation and advocacy for Right Behind Bars. “It has been a long time coming for Dublin.”

Read more: California women’s prison known as ‘rape club’ needs outside oversight, judge rules

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.

Maria Ledesma, a former inmate released from Dublin after two years in 2022, said she was surprised the closure took so long. “I wish it would have happened sooner,” the 52-year-old Salt Lake City woman said . During her time there, she saw frequent sexual abuse. “Girls were getting raped on the daily there,” she said.

Ledesma recalled walking back from her prison job when she heard some shuffling and spotted two people between the buildings. “There was the warden, zipping up his pants,” she said. “He looked at me, I looked at him, and I knew in that moment I needed to put my head down and keep walking.”

The closure comes after the FBI 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.”

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla called the announcement “long overdue” and said “it is an absolute failure that the horrific crimes committed in this facility persisted for as long as they did.”

Dulgov was the third new leader of the low-security prison since Warden Ray J. Garcia was convicted of sexually assaulting multiple women serving time there. Last year, Garcia was sentenced to 70 months in prison for sexually abusing incarcerated women and lying to the FBI as part of a coverup.

The FBI raid that collected documents and computers came after Dulgov 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.

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.

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.

Read more: ‘Every woman’s worst nightmare’: Lawsuit alleges widespread sexual abuse at California prisons for women

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.

Read more: L.A. County probation officer accused of sex with jailed youth

In March 2023, U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez 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.

Read more: California speeds plans to empty San Quentin’s death row

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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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.