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Fate of Infamous Dublin Women's Prison Now in Hands of Federal Judge

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FCI Dublin Women's Prison in Dublin on Aug. 16, 2023.
Federal Correctional Institution Dublin, a women's prison in the East Bay, on Aug. 16, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A federal district judge is “highly doubtful” she will order an independent monitor to oversee a notorious East Bay women’s prison despite numerous allegations of misconduct.

That’s according to District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, who recently held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether to order major changes at the notorious Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Dublin, where incarcerated plaintiffs say they have been victims of sexual abuse and retaliation.

Gonzalez Rogers was active throughout the five-day hearing in Oakland that concluded earlier this week, asking hard questions of both prison administrators and the incarcerated women accusing staff of misconduct.

The judge issued several orders to prison officials to improve conditions at the low-security federal facility and even required two top administrators to review and reflect on the women’s testimony. But she nevertheless seemed unconvinced that the plaintiffs’ legal argument was strong enough to require further federal oversight of the embattled institution.

“Whether it requires the massive relief you’re asking for is highly doubtful,” Gonzalez Rogers told attorneys for the plaintiffs after the hearing on Tuesday. She ordered both sides to submit briefs within the next few weeks and said she would decide after reviewing them whether to require any additional changes at the prison.

The hearing is the latest step in a broader potential class-action lawsuit filed in August 2023 on behalf of eight women currently incarcerated at the East Bay prison.

That lawsuit alleges that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has been aware of the problems at FCI Dublin — which has become known as the “rape club” — for decades and that the issues there are systemic, not just the fault of some “bad apples,” as government attorneys have argued. In addition to third-party oversight of the prison — known as appointing a “special master” — plaintiffs’ attorneys are also demanding a jury trial and damages for emotional and physical abuse.

In recent years, about 45 inmates at the roughly 700-person women’s prison have filed charges of sexual misconduct, and at least seven correctional staff have already been convicted or pleaded guilty of abuse, including its former warden and chaplain in 2022.

That’s left the culture of the prison “in shambles,” as Patrick Deveney, the new associate warden, put it. Trust at the facility has completely eroded, according to multiple staff members and incarcerated women who testified at the recent court hearing.

“I saw a group of staff that were reeling from what had transpired. Staff felt hurt, angry, confused, completely failed by the previous administration,” Alison Mulcahy, the prison’s chief psychologist, said in court this week. “Individuals in our custody survived a lot of horrific things. There was a lot of mistrust and distrust. It was very adversarial.”

But several of the nine prison employees who testified at the hearing said things are improving. The new administration said they have made it easier to report abuse, including setting up a new legal phone line that incarcerated women can use to contact lawyers more easily.

Even so, multiple women currently incarcerated at the prison testified that they have experienced ongoing retaliation from officers when they report abuse and said they have avoided reporting various instances of misconduct, fearing repercussions, like losing access to the commissary, jobs and phone or visitor time.

more on FCI Dublin

Many incarcerated women who testified also said that after reporting abuse, they were denied appropriate medical care. Multiple women said they had been suicidal or attempted suicide, and despite notifying staff, could not get crucial medications and mental health care.

“I can’t leave my room without feeling a sense of fear. The officers are so mean and make very degrading comments,’” a woman identified as S.L., who is currently incarcerated at the prison, told the judge this week. “I’ve been reporting and saying things and seeking help. But it’s not getting any better.”

Another currently incarcerated woman, identified as C.A.H., testified in Spanish that after she reported being raped by a correctional officer, she was disciplined, threatened with solitary confinement, and denied her epilepsy medication. She said she is now having two to three seizures a week and suffering injuries and memory loss.

Mulcahy, the psychologist, came on staff in the fall of 2022, shortly after the warden, chaplain and several staff were found guilty of sexually abusing inmates. She said problems with medical and mental health care are largely due to understaffing and that several therapy groups in the prison currently have hundreds of people on their waitlists.

“I would love to run more groups and be fully staffed,” Mulcahy said. She added that some psychiatric medications that some incarcerated women may have received during previous confinements at state institutions are not permitted under federal prison policy.

Monte Wilson, the prison health services administrator, also testified about understaffing at the prison, noting that it is currently short two physicians and three mid-level health providers.

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“It’s caused distrust in the medical process,” Wilson said in court on Monday, adding that there are only two physicians at the facility — for the more than 700 women incarcerated there. Witnesses testified that it can sometimes take up to 90 days to get even routine appointments with specialists, including oncologists, for cancer treatment.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers expressed concern about the way guards treated some suicidal women. She also grilled prison officials over their use of solitary confinement after hearing several incarcerated women describe how it had been used as a retaliatory measure.

Prison officials denied that allegation, arguing that they had resorted to solitary confinement in certain instances for safety reasons due to the lack of intermediate-level housing for those who needed protection from the general population.

“Let me tell you something. You’re going to have to figure it out, because I’m not going to tolerate it,” the judge told the associate warden, referring to the use of solitary confinement.

A number of women who testified also described other degrading forms of retaliation that occurred after meeting with their attorneys, like being strip-searched by guards and being watched as they went to the bathroom. While administrators said these practices are a matter of policy, the women said they were enforced against them selectively and only began happening in the last month as they were preparing for this hearing.

“All these atrocities that are taking place in retaliation, it is wrong,” said Robin Lucas, who survived sexual assault while incarcerated at FCI Dublin 30 years ago. Lucas was at the courthouse in support of survivors who had come forward to speak. “You’re here to pay your debt to society. If you did something wrong, you go to prison to do your time. That’s it.”

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