Judge will appoint special master to oversee California federal women's prison after rampant abuse

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FILE - An official walks toward an entrance to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., March 11, 2024. A judge on Friday, March 15, appointed a special master to oversee the federal prison dubbed the "rape club" by prisoners and workers alike in the San Francisco Bay Area. The judge's order encompasses the prison in Dublin, located about 21 miles (34 kilometers) east of Oakland. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

OAKLAND, Calif. – A special master will be appointed to oversee a troubled federal women’s prison in California known for rampant sexual abuse against inmates, a judge ordered Friday, marking the first time the federal Bureau of Prisons has been subject to such oversight.

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

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U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers called the prison “a dysfunctional mess” in her order. She did not name someone to be the special master but wrote that the court would appoint one quickly.

“The situation can no longer be tolerated. The facility is in dire need of immediate change," she wrote, adding that the Bureau of Prisons has “proceeded sluggishly with intentional disregard of the inmates’ constitutional rights despite being fully apprised of the situation for years. The repeated installation of BOP leadership who fail to grasp and address the situation strains credulity."

The order 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 has not stopped despite the prosecution of the former warden and several former officers.

“This unprecedented decision on the need for oversight shows that courageous incarcerated people, community and dedicated lawyers can collectively challenge the impunity of the federal government and Bureau of Prisons,” Emily Shapiro, a member of California Coalition for Women Prisoners, said in a statement Friday.

The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the special master appointment.

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

FCI Dublin’s sexual abuse scandal has been one of many troubles plaguing the bureau, which is also beset by rampant staffing shortages, suicides and security breaches.

Since 2021, at least eight FCI Dublin employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. Five have pleaded guilty. Two were convicted at trial. Another case is pending. Roughly 50 civil rights lawsuits against FCI Dublin employees are also ongoing.

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

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.

Rogers made an unannounced visit to the prison Feb. 14, touring the facility and its satellite camp for nine hours. She spoke with at least 100 inmates, as well as staff.

Many of the inmates told her that they did not fear sexual misconduct and said “no” when asked if it was still prevalent at the prison, Rogers wrote. Still, the plaintiffs in the August lawsuit have “presented incidents of sexual misconduct that occurred as recently as November of 2023.”

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

“The truth is somewhere in the middle—allegations of sexual misconduct have lingered but to characterize it as pervasive goes too far," she wrote. "However, and as the Court finds herein, because of its inability to promptly investigate the allegations that remain, and the ongoing retaliation against incarcerated persons who report misconduct, BOP has lost the ability to manage with integrity and trust.”

Friday's special master appointment follows days after the FBI searched the prison as part of an ongoing, years-long investigation. The current warden has also been ousted after new allegations that his staff retaliated against an inmate who testified against the prison, according to government court papers filed Monday.

Despite recent attempts at reform, Rogers wrote that the prison “cannot seem to leave behind, however, is its suspicion that it is the system, not incarcerated women, that is being abused.”

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