WASHINGTON – Several House Democrats are demanding the federal Bureau of Prisons make public an audit that examines reports of sexual assault at a federal women's prison in California where inmates say they've been subjected to rampant sexual abuse that has led to the arrests of four employees, including the former warden.
The eight legislators, including members of the House Judiciary and oversight committees and the Democratic Women's Caucus, wrote to prisons Director Michael Carvajal that they want him to provide a copy of the Prison Rape Elimination Act audit conducted at the federal correctional institution in Dublin, California, by the end of the month.
The group — Reps. Jackie Speier, Karen Bass and Eric Swalwell, all of California, along with Texas Reps. Veronica Escobar, Sylvia Garcia and Sheila Jackson Lee and Florida Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Lois Frankel — also wrote to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz on Thursday, asking his office to conduct an inspection at Dublin.
The legislators want Horowitz to examine the facility's compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, commonly known as PREA, and to investigate “flawed reporting and investigation procedures regarding complaints of sexual violence and retaliation.” They also ask the inspector general to look at retaliation against staff members and inmates who filed complaints, the prison’s staffing levels and whether there’s adequate coverage with surveillance cameras.
The Bureau of Prisons said Thursday that it was reviewing the letter and that it would not comment on congressional briefings or correspondence with Congress. It previously had said that the audit wasn’t ready for release. The inspector general’s office declined to comment.
The demands come after an Associated Press investigation detailed allegations of widespread sexual misconduct at the prison and uncovered a toxic culture that allowed it to continue for years as prison officials threatened and punished inmates who spoke up about the abuse. The AP also has reported that employees say they, too, are being threatened for raising alarms about misconduct.
The allegations at Dublin are emblematic of a larger problem within the beleaguered Bureau of Prisons. In 2020, the year some of the women at Dublin complained, there were 422 complaints of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse across the system of 122 prisons and 153,000 inmates. The bureau said that it substantiated only four of those complaints and that 290 are still being investigated.
Those arrested at Dublin include the prison’s former warden, Ray Garica, who is accused of molesting an inmate as she tried to push him away. Garcia made her and another inmate strip naked as he did rounds and took pictures that were found on his personal laptop computer and government-issued cellphone when the FBI raided his office and home last summer, prosecutors said. The inspector general’s office has been involved in several of those cases, including Garcia’s case, and those investigations remain ongoing.
Two of the arrested men, James Theodore Highhouse, the prison's former chaplain, and Ross Klinger, a recycling technician, have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Several other Dublin workers are under investigation.
Garcia, who has pleaded not guilty, had had an outsize influence as warden over how Dublin handled employee sexual misconduct. He led staff and inmate training on reporting abuse and complying with PREA and had control over staff discipline, including in cases of sexual abuse.
The woman Garcia is accused of assaulting told investigators that one instance of abuse happened while PREA officials were visiting the prison. She said Garcia assaulted her in a changing stall designed for PREA-compliant searches.
In his role, Garcia was also in charge of the legally required “rape elimination” compliance audit, which was first scheduled to be completed at Dublin in early 2020. But the audit was not completed until last September, about the time he was arrested.
The Bureau of Prisons has blamed the coronavirus pandemic for the delay and has said the audit, Dublin’s first since 2017, is not yet finalized and cannot be made public.
One of the legislators' letters says it's "past time for an updated audit to be issued.”
“While part of the delay is understandable given the COVID-19 pandemic, this does not justify why FCI Dublin has not completed an audit in 2018 and 2019,” the letters says.
The group demanded Carvajal — who announced he was resigning in January but is remaining on until a replacement is named — turn over the 2021 audit report by March 28.
The Bureau of Prisons has been under increasing scrutiny from Congress following the AP’s reporting.
The Senate has launched a bipartisan working group to scrutinize conditions within the Bureau of Prisons, and late last month the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding he take immediate action to reform the bureau.
Sisak reported from New York.