Judge appoints special master to oversee California federal women’s prison after rampant abuse

OAKLAND, California — A judge on Friday appointed a special master to oversee a troubled federal women’s prison in California known for rampant sexual abuse of inmates. This is the first time the Bureau of Prisons has been subject to such oversight.

A 2021 Associated Press investigation that found a culture of abuse and cover-up at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin prompted increased scrutiny from Congress and the Bureau of Prisons. The low-security prison and adjacent minimum-security satellite camp, located about 21 miles (34 kilometers) east of Oakland, house more than 600 inmates.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers appointed Wendy Still – a veteran corrections and probation officer with extensive experience coordinating enforcement of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act – as special master. The judge has also appointed several staff members to assist her. In appointing Still, the judge said she and her team will have “full access to FCI Dublin, all its data and all physical facilities.”

“The director will take all steps to ensure such access,” the judge said.

When she ordered the special master last month, Rogers called the prison “a dysfunctional mess.” She added that the Bureau of Prisons has “moved slowly with deliberate disregard for the constitutional rights of inmates, despite being fully aware of the situation for years.” The repeated installation of BOP leaders who fail to understand and address the situation strains credulity.”

The appointment of a special master is part of a federal lawsuit filed in August by eight inmates and the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners. They allege that sexual abuse and exploitation have not stopped despite the prosecution of the former director and several former officers.

“This unprecedented decision on the need for supervision shows that courageous incarcerated people, the community and dedicated advocates can stand together to challenge the impunity of the federal government and the Bureau of Prisons,” said Emily Shapiro, a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, in a statement. last month.

The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the captain’s special appointment.

FCI Dublin opened in 1974 and was converted in 2012 into one of six women-only facilities in the federal prison system. The prison has housed well-known inmates, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin of the Varsity Blues college bribery scandal.

The FCI Dublin sex abuse scandal is one of many problems facing the agency, which has also been plagued by major staff shortages, suicides and security breaches.

Since 2021, at least eight FCI Dublin employees have been accused of sexually abusing prisoners. Five have pleaded guilty. Two were convicted at trial. There is another case pending. There are also approximately fifty civil rights cases pending against employees of FCI Dublin.

Rogers wrote that “in making this extraordinary decision, the Court relies on BOP’s repeated failure to ensure that the extraordinary history of this facility is never repeated.”

Any sexual activity between a prison employee and an inmate is illegal. Correctional officers enjoy substantial power over inmates, controlling every aspect of their lives, from mealtimes to turning off the lights, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent.

Rogers made an unannounced visit to the prison on February 14, touring the prison and satellite camp for nine hours. She spoke to at least a hundred prisoners and staff.

Many inmates told her they were not afraid of sexual misconduct and said “no” when asked if it still happened in prison, Rogers wrote. Yet in the August lawsuit, plaintiffs presented “incidents of sexual misconduct that occurred as recently as November 2023.”

While she did not believe the prison has a “sexualized environment,” as alleged in the lawsuit, the judge wrote that she does not believe sexual misconduct has been eradicated at FCI Dublin.

“The truth lies somewhere in the middle: allegations of sexual misconduct linger, but labeling it as ubiquitous goes too far,” she wrote. “However, and as the Court herein finds, due to the inability to promptly investigate the allegations that persist, and the continued retaliation against incarcerated individuals who report misconduct, BOP has lost the ability to act with integrity and trust. ”

The special appointment as captain comes days after the FBI searched the prison as part of an ongoing, years-long investigation. The current warden has also been ousted following new allegations that his staff retaliated against an inmate who testified against the prison, according to court documents filed Monday.

Despite recent efforts at reform, Rogers wrote last month that what the prison “cannot seem to leave behind is the suspicion that it is the system, not the incarcerated women, that is being abused.”