Abuse-clouded prison gets attention, but will things change?
DUBLIN, Calif. (AP) — For months, inmates and staff say, their calls for help were ignored. And in this aging prison of deep despair — a place where sexual abuse has been rampant, authorities acted with utter indifference and the workforce was deeply demoralized — the cries for help had been many and varied.
Just weeks earlier, an Associated Press investigation had revealed a culture of abuse and cover-ups that had persisted for years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, a women-only facility called the “rape club” by many who know it. Because of AP reporting, the head of the federal Bureau of Prisons had submitted his resignation in January. Yet no one had been named to replace him, so he was still on the job.
Now he was responding to the problems in Dublin — but only after an angry congresswoman had called him to complain.
So early March found the lame-duck administrator, flanked by a task force of senior agency officials, arriving at the prison after flying in to meet inmates and staff in person. According to Dublin inmates, this was how he faced them as he toured the facility:
“You wanted my attention,” Michael Carvajal said, “so here I am.”
‘TRUST HAS BEEN BROKEN’
“It’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible. I’ve never experienced anything like this. In my career, I’ve never been part of a situation like this. This is really unprecedented.”
Those words, spoken about the troubled Dublin facility, come not from an activist or inmate advocate, not from any elected official, not from anywhere outside the prison walls. They come from Thahesha Jusino, its newly installed warden.
Her predecessor, Ray J. Garcia, is one of five Dublin employees who have been charged since last June with sexually abusing inmates.
“We’ve really lost a lot of credibility through all of this, which is understandable, because it’s appalling what has happened,” Jusino said in an interview with the AP.
This story is based on interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with the visiting task force’s work, the prison’s operations and the abuse crisis. They include current and former inmates, employees, lawyers, government and union officials. Many spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation or because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The AP visited Dublin, about 21 miles (34 kilometers) east of Oakland, during the same time as the task force’s visit, the week of March 7. Lawmakers, disturbed by reports of abuse, also traveled there shortly after. Carvajal and some task force members returned to Dublin in April. In one sign of progress, the agency replaced both of the prison’s associate wardens.
Carvajal, a Trump administration holdover, submitted his resignation Jan. 5 but said he would stay on until a successor is named. He joined the task force for the first three days of its weeklong first visit to Dublin.
But even as the task force was arriving, and as scrutiny from the outside appeared finally to be at hand, things did not seem to be proceeding in a positive direction.
Officials moved inmates out of the special housing unit so it wouldn’t look as full when the task force got there. And they lied to Carvajal about COVID-19 contamination so inmates in a certain unit couldn’t speak to him about abuse.
Those who managed to get to Carvajal didn’t hold back. In one emotional scene, a woman who said she was abused by prison officials tearfully confronted him in a recreation area as he and members of the task force were meeting with inmates.
The woman shared graphic details of her alleged abuse. She spoke for about 15 minutes and grew increasingly upset, calming down only after prison officials brought her tissues. She was eventually taken out of the room and brought to a prison psychologist, where she was offered immediate release to a halfway house.
She objected. She wanted to wait so she could tell her story publicly to congressional leaders expected at the prison. But people at the prison say she wasn’t able to thoroughly express her concerns.
Bureau of Prisons and Justice Department officials told the woman that because she was a potential witness, she couldn’t talk about the investigation, the people said. The woman was moved to a halfway house soon after the tour.
In another charged moment, a group of Dublin workers lashed out at Carvajal for putting Garcia in charge of a women’s prison when he’d already had a reputation in prison circles as a misogynist.
“You created this monster,” one worker told Carvajal. Asked another: “Why did you create this toxic environment? Why did you pick Garcia as the warden?”
Garcia is accused of molesting an inmate on multiple occasions from December 2019 to March 2020 and forcing her and another inmate to strip naked so he could take pictures while he made rounds. Investigators said they found the images on his government-issued cellphone. His lawyer refused an interview request.
Garcia is also accused of using his authority to intimidate one of his victims, telling her that he was “close friends” with the person investigating staff misconduct and boasting that he could not be fired. He has pleaded not guilty.
Carvajal promoted Garcia from associate warden to warden at Dublin in November 2020, after Garcia’s alleged misconduct but before the agency said it knew about it. Carvajal told the workers that if he had known about Garcia’s reputation or alleged abuse, he would’ve chosen a different warden.
Speaking to inmates about Garcia, however, Carvajal said something a bit different — that he believed in “innocent until proven guilty.”
AN UNEASY HISTORY
FCI Dublin is one of just six women-only facilities in the U.S. federal prison system. As of Wednesday, Dublin had about 785 inmates, many serving sentences for drug crimes.
It opened in 1974 as a federal youth center in which men and women ages 18 to 26 lived in a campus-like setting. The concept was later abandoned.
In 1977, the Bureau of Prisons converted the facility into a traditional adult prison — first for female inmates like the high-profile heiress Patty Hearst and then, in 1980, for men and women. It went back to being a women’s prison in 2012.
Throughout FCI Dublin’s existence, it has been troubled by sexual abuse.
In 1996, three female inmates sued the Bureau of Prisons, alleging they were “sold like sex slaves” by correctional officers who placed them in a male unit, unlocked their cells and allowed male inmates to rape them. No one was arrested; the agency agreed to settle the lawsuit for $500,000.
Separately, in the late 1990s, four officers were charged with engaging in sexual conduct with inmates. And in the early 2010s, about a dozen Dublin employees were quietly removed for sexually abusing inmates. None was arrested, according to a person working there at the time. One worker was allowed to retire after videotapes were found in his locker of him having sex with inmates.
More recently, two of the five employees charged since last June with sexually abusing inmates have pleaded guilty, and the investigation continues: On March 20, a food service foreman was arrested for allegedly touching an inmate’s breasts, buttocks and genitals in October 2020.
Since March, nine other workers have been placed on administrative leave by the Bureau of Prisons. New inmate sexual abuse and staff employment discrimination complaints were filed during the task force’s visit. FBI agents conducted searches at the prison and an employee’s home in mid-April, and at least six internal affairs investigators have been on site investigating claims.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, who is being briefed regularly on issues in the beleaguered federal prison system, said the Justice Department was committed to “holding BOP personnel accountable, including through criminal charges.” Said Monaco: “Staff misconduct, at any level, will not be tolerated, and our efforts to root it out are far from over.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland, asked about Dublin at a U.S. Senate budget hearing Tuesday, said it was Monaco’s idea — not Carvajal’s — to form a task force “to investigate and determine the procedural failures” at the prison. He cited the prosecution of accused employees, an ongoing internal investigation and the selection of Jusino as warden as steps toward improving conditions.
“This is another really terrible set of events,” Garland said.
Justice Department spokesperson Kristina Mastropasqua said the task force that visited Dublin had reported allegations of misconduct to the prison system’s internal affairs office, where investigators “opened a case file for each allegation.”
Also during the task force’s visit, numerous complaints were filed by inmates and staff members alleging sexual harassment, misconduct and violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act and federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws.
How many complaints were received? Asked by the AP, the Bureau of Prisons said it couldn’t say.
REAL CHANGE, OR PERFORMANCE?
For all the disturbing details the March task force took in, it was hardly the whole truth — partly because inmates and prison workers do not trust the leadership and refused to speak candidly, and partly because officials hid some of Dublin’s problems.
Inmates who’d been in the special housing unit for disciplinary issues were returned to the general population so the place wouldn’t look nearly as full. Officials also lied to Carvajal and told him he couldn’t visit a particular housing unit where inmates wanted to talk to him about abuse. They claimed, falsely, that it was contaminated with COVID-19.
Carvajal did seem taken aback by the lack of security cameras in critical areas — an issue the prison’s union had been raising for six years — and pledged to speed the process for installing them.
Though Dublin does have some cameras, there were none in some of the hallways and rooms that Carvajal toured, including areas where some inmates were sexually abused. Several times the director asked, “Where are the cameras?”
On a recent afternoon, inmates from Dublin’s minimum-security prison camp could be seen congregating on a walking track outside the prison’s fences with no visible supervision and no perimeter cameras. The Bureau of Prisons has faced scrutiny in the last few years after dozens of inmates escaped from its prisons, with many simply walking away from low-security areas.
“Making infrastructural improvements, such as adding additional cameras, to protect the safety and security of inmates and staff is a priority,” the Bureau of Prisons said in response to questions about Carvajal’s visit.
But seven weeks later, not one new camera has been installed.
Precisely what actual progress the task force’s visit produced — and who ultimately had access to its members while they were there — is not entirely clear.
Susan Beaty, a lawyer for Dublin inmates, said advocates had information to share with the task force but were shut out of the visit. Beaty said several abused inmates were immigrants and that predatory prison employees were targeting women facing deportation.
The Bureau of Prisons “is never proactive. They’re reactive. They’re only doing this because Congress is on their ass and they know they have to act,” Dublin union president Ed Canales said.
Canales said the prison’s staff was “not impressed” with the visit and wasn’t expecting any changes, in part because some senior managers who ignored or encouraged abuse are still working at the prison.
Beaty said correctional officers staged a charade during the visit, exhibiting their best behavior while the task force was present and cursing at inmates as soon as the visitors left the room.
Some inmates saw the task force’s visit not as an actual, good-faith way to fix Dublin but as window-dressing ahead of U.S. Rep Jackie Speier’s return to the prison with two other members of Congress on March 14.
One inmate asked: “Is this just for show so that you can say you came before the Congress comes back?” Observed another: “It is just as I thought. The task force was here to head them off and tell them that they were on top of issues that were raised.”
CONGRESS IS WATCHING
Congress has been increasingly critical of the Bureau of Prisons, an agency plagued by myriad problems in recent years, including many revealed by AP reporting.
The bureau formed its Dublin task force after the AP investigation in February revealed a toxic culture of sexual misconduct and cover-ups at the prison. Carvajal announced the task force in an internal memo on March 2, just days before its work began. But he did not disclose it publicly until the AP asked about it.
Carvajal wrote that the group — 18 women, including a warden and officials from human resources and internal affairs — was being sent to “observe and assess the climate of the institution” and “assist the agency in redressing identified issues and increasing performance.”
Speaking to inmates, Carvajal acknowledged that pressure from Congress prompted him to act.
He said Speier, D-Calif., had called him after she visited Dublin in the wake of the AP’s reporting. Speier, Carvajal said, was upset with how inmates were being treated and complained that prison officials stonewalled her when she tried to speak with them directly.
Dublin’s union and inmate advocate groups said the bureau and Justice Department had ignored their earlier cries for help. The union said it had been begging agency leaders to visit Dublin since FBI agents raided the former warden’s office last July.
In February, more than 100 inmate advocacy organizations sent a letter to the Justice Department calling for “swift, sweeping action” to address abuse at Dublin, including an independent investigation and the release of victimized inmates to prevent further trauma, but never got a response.
Speier and Reps. Karen Bass and Eric Swalwell, two other California Democrats, visited the facility after the task force and said they were encouraged by its work but still had concerns, including a lack of adequate medical and psychological services at the facility.
They applauded recommendations to add more security cameras and a dedicated email address for inmates to report abuse. They also called for special training for employees in women’s prisons.
“There is literally a culture there that is toxic and one that needs to be addressed,” Speier said in an interview.
Bass, Speier and Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., introduced legislation last month to improve the treatment of women in federal prisons such as Dublin, including providing adequate medical care and examining efforts to retain female officers.
Among other things, the Women in Criminal Justice Reform Act would require minimum standards of care and conditions for federal prison facilities where women are held, temporary release of inmates for medical services such as care from a sexual assault nurse examiner and training for federal prison workers in trauma-informed screening and care.
Each one of those changes would improve conditions at Dublin. Together, they could begin to overhaul it entirely.
WILL ANYTHING HAPPEN?
As the crisis continues at Dublin, questions remain about whether the Bureau of Prisons is serious about fixing it — or even capable of doing so. And the wake of the task force’s visit offers little in the way of optimism.
After the visitors left in March, Dublin officials started enforcing more exacting prison uniform rules and cracking down on inmates’ few luxuries.
Blankets, issued to keep inmates warm in drafty cells, were confiscated. Robes purchased from the prison commissary were banned. Inmates were told to wear bras, cover their bodies and avoid tight pants. Some felt they were being punished to keep prison workers from leering at them.
Inmate advocates say the task force ignored them entirely. Local union officials, seeing the whole trip as a smokescreen to placate Congress, said they’d been begging agency leaders to visit for months, to no avail. Prison workers came away from the week doubting anything would change.
Does the new person in charge offer any hope? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. Jusino, Dublin’s first permanent warden since Garcia was put on administrative leave prior to his arrest, started a week before Carvajal and the task force arrived.
The daughter of a former federal prison warden, she has worked in federal prisons since 1998. She was an associate warden at two prisons and was the warden at a federal prison in Victorville, California, about 71 miles northeast of Los Angeles, before being assigned to Dublin.
She is adamant that change will come — that it must.
“The trust has been broken with our inmate population, which is beyond unacceptable. It’s been broken with our staff, and it has been broken with the public,” Jusino says. “We need to show that we’re committed to this.”
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