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Judge Considers Federal Oversight for Dublin Women's Prison Notorious for Sexual Abuse

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A large walled and gated complex.
FCI Dublin Women's Prison in Dublin on Aug. 16, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A federal judge is hearing testimony this week over an East Bay federal women’s prison where inmates have alleged rampant and ongoing sexual abuse by correctional officers.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers is now considering whether to appoint a special master to oversee reforms at Federal Correctional Institution Dublin, an all-women’s facility facing more than 45 civil lawsuits over sexual assault and retaliation. Eight correctional officers at FCI Dublin have been charged already, including the facility’s former warden and chaplain.

Survivors of abuse at the prison, along with staff, are expected to testify this week in order for the judge to review whether federal oversight is needed or whether the government has improved conditions at the prison, which has become notoriously known as a “rape club.”

“There was a lot of misconduct, rampant, throughout the institution,” said Erika Quezada, deputy captain FCI Dublin, who is in charge of correctional services at Dublin, testifying on Wednesday about conditions she saw when she started working there in 2022. There was “a lot of ignorance when it came to what policy really was,” and that many staff lacked proper training, she said, because they started during the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person training was suspended.

Quezada claimed that conditions at the facility have improved. “Once the new team of executive staff arrived, we had a meeting internally and discussed exactly what the allegations were,” she told the judge. “We are establishing zero-tolerance from here on out. It’s unacceptable, and every single allegation is going to be sent up.”

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But attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case said any changes have been insufficient. Survivors are expected to testify later this week.

“It’s the persistence of the problem over many years. It’s how widespread it is in the facility,” Ernest Galvan, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told KQED. “It’s the fact that the highest investigative officials within the facility, whose job it is to investigate both staff and incarcerated persons misconduct, just allowed this to go on and on for years.”

If appointed, the special master for FCI Dublin would be a first in the history of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. It would entail bringing in a neutral third party to monitor the prison and any potential policy changes, KTVU reports.

“Our clients rightly perceive that they are at imminent risk of serious harm because the Bureau of Prisons is still out of control with regard to protecting female prisoners from sexual assault and abuse,” Galvan said.

Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, Rights Behind Bars, the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, and attorneys from the law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP represent plaintiffs.

In August, attorneys filed a potential class action lawsuit on behalf of eight women incarcerated at FCI Dublin who allege sexual abuse and retaliation from FCI Dublin officials and several individual officers.

They also asked the court for a preliminary injunction and to order immediate changes at the facility, including an end to solitary confinement, unless there is sufficient evidence that it’s not used for retaliation against people who report abuse. They are simultaneously seeking improved access to adequate off-site medical and mental health care.

At a December court hearing, attorneys representing the U.S. government argued that specific people working at FCI Dublin were the problem, rather than broader policies in the Bureau of Prisons and practices at the facility.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers was unconvinced and requested the four-day hearing before deciding whether to order changes at FCI Dublin.

During Wednesday’s hearing, the federal district judge challenged assertions that the facility’s high-security isolation cell, called a Special Housing Unit or SHU, was not used as a disciplinary response to safety concerns and reports.

“It’s hard to say [Special Housing Unit] is not punitive,” Gonzalez Rogers said. “You’re treating them just like someone who is being disciplined.”

The court previously found that multiple women were sent to the isolation unit after reporting sexual violence. Quezada said that the response was intended to protect the women who were put in the segregated unit.

“It seems there should be something that is not SHU that protects the inmates,” the judge asked. “Is there anything in between?

“There is not,” Quezada replied.

This week’s hearing started on Jan. 3 and is scheduled to continue through Jan. 5, with the possibility of added days.

KQED reporter April Dembosky contributed to this story.

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