The women that ‘Me too’ left behind

A long history of inmate abuse in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is beginning to unravel.

Inside the courthouse at the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, California, a lawyer with a shock of white hair peers from behind his thick, black-rimmed glasses. The room is quiet; the rustling of his suit a reminder that it is just a little too big for his frame. James Reilly prepares to deliver his opening statement. He’s speaking on behalf of Ray Garcia, the former warden of FCI Dublin, a women’s prison in California.

Garcia faces seven charges for sexual abuse of prison ward and abusive sexual conduct of inmates in his care and one charge for lying to federal investigators. And despite two of his former colleagues — including the prison chaplain — pleading guilty to similar crimes and two others facing charges, Reilly maintains Garcia’s innocence. Or something like it. “The evidence is … going to show that Melissa is a convicted felon, that Maria is a convicted felon, that Rachel is a convicted felon, and that the other witnesses who are going to testify who were inmates at the time obviously are all convicted felons,” he says. What he doesn’t say is, “in a game of ‘he-said, she-said,’ he wins,” but the overtone is heard. 

In July 2021, an inmate named Melissa approached the Federal Bureau of Investigation with a complaint against Garcia and FCI Dublin. She claimed that she’d been sexually abused by the warden — and that she wasn’t the only one. What began as a complaint soon turned into a shakedown of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and its rampant mismanagement (a spokesperson for FCI Dublin declined a request for comment for this story).

The West has fewer than 20 percent of the nation’s federal prisons, yet the region accounts for a quarter of the institutions where bureau staff have been found to abuse incarcerated women. Melissa’s report and the several others to follow became the first rays of light publicly shed on a history of abuse at Dublin. In turn, it shed light on institutions across the West and throughout the Federal Bureau of Prisons that have been held in the dark for decades. 

The West has fewer than 20 percent of the nation’s federal prisons, yet the region accounts for a quarter of the institutions where bureau staff have been found to abuse incarcerated women.

A bipartisan investigation published by the U.S. Senate last December found that sexual abuse has grown rampant within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It took only the better part of one year for the investigation to discover that bureau employees have sexually abused incarcerated women in at least two-thirds of federal women’s prisons over the last decade, an egregious violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a nearly 20-year-old law meant to prevent and address sexual abuse in American prisons. An FBI investigation launched in July 2021 has led to more than 100 federal employees within the Federal Bureau of Prisons being charged with assault in a matter of a year. Also exposed was the Bureau’s Office of Internal Affairs’ backlog of 8,000 cases — at least hundreds of which are cases of sexual abuse. Misconduct occurs at all ranks. Perpetrators range from correctional officers and counselors to chaplains and wardens. 

These realizations arrive more than five years after the first wave of the #MeToo movement, which empowers women to share their stories of abuse and hold perpetrators accountable. But that movement has also largely excluded the voices of the roughly 11,000 women incarcerated in federal prisons. Where most of the women who came forward posted their stories online, incarcerated women were left unheard. Many of those who reported their experiences merely had their case overlooked, stuck in a backlog of allegations awaiting investigation. Many others didn’t report out of fear, intimidation, a lack of consequence to perpetrators, or punishment of those who came forward. All were possible for the women who spoke out, who felt unprotected. A look into the history of these prisons suggests they’ve never been protected at all.

Exposing the abuse in California

When FCI Dublin opened in California in 1974, it housed both male and female inmates. Of the few federal prisons that existed in the American West, Dublin became the first to open its doors to women. The institution arrived four decades after President Herbert Hoover signed the Federal Bureau of Prisons into law, which centralized all federal prisons under the government. There would decidedly be no variance in their protocol, no discrepancies in work culture. And even though the thought of incarcerated women had started to grow less and less taboo for a century by Dublin’s inception, it’d take another two decades for the bureau to create its first policy on the “management of female offenders.” In 2012, Dublin became an all women’s prison, but it had already faced lawsuits from former inmates accusing staff of abuse. 

Valerie Mercadel filed one of those lawsuits in 1996. At Dublin, she said correctional officers allowed incarcerated men to enter her cell at night and sexually assault her. Mercadel recalls how prison officers attempted to coerce her into undressing for them in exchange for a prison-issued T-shirt. She said she not only refused those advances, she reported them. But in response to her report, she said she was told her allegations were “dangerous.” Officers placed her in solitary confinement. What she’d disclosed in confidential interviews later became public knowledge among Dublin prison staff. In her testimony, she said officers threatened to pit other incarcerated people against her and close her investigation. 

Complaints of assault and harassment at FCI Dublin in California have been documented for decades. | MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Two years after her lawsuit, she reached a settlement with the bureau. It included a promise to “reduce the risk to female prisoners of sexual assaults and harassment by correctional staff and male prisoners” and to “provide appropriate programming, counseling and services to female prisoners who are victims of sexual assault.” That promise, however, was not legally binding. It was merely made in “good faith.” The same intimidation and abuse that drove Mercadel’s lawsuit persists almost three decades later.

Seldom is much attention paid to the stories of the incarcerated, let alone stories of incarcerated women like Mercadel’s. But Dublin has drawn scrutiny the past few years. Garcia, the former warden, is the highest-ranking federal prison official to be arrested in over a decade. Evidence — from photos of his genitals to those of naked inmates — was found on a phone and laptop issued to him by the government. It presented a rare opportunity for litigation; someone in the highest position of power possible in a prison had left behind breadcrumbs for federal investigators to find. 

More than five years after the first wave of the #MeToo movement, the voices of the roughly 11,000 women incarcerated in federal prisons have been excluded.

That investigation led to three women testifying against Garcia before a grand jury. Melissa was the first. She arrived at the federal courthouse in Oakland armed with half her name and a story. On a Monday morning in late November, the court omitted her last name from the record for fear of her safety, with Melissa bringing forth information she feared powerful enough to get herself killed. She had already been transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution in Victorville, California, about 400 miles south of Dublin as a safety precaution. Even there, Garcia’s actions followed her. She testified that she had threatening notes slipped under her cell door. Officers approached her at Victorville to ask about Garcia; people told her all the abuse that took place at Dublin was her fault. “It’s been the scariest thing that I’ve ever done,” she said on the witness stand. “And living inside of those prisons, not anybody in this room can understand, nobody. Unless you are in these clothes and is behind a fence. They play God with your life.”

The abuse of power

A conspiracy to murder charge is what brought Melissa to Dublin. Back in 1998, she helped orchestrate the murders of two men with her brother, who belonged to a local rival gang. She testified eight years ago that her brother — who had been part of white-power skinhead groups since she was just 12 years old — pressured her to act as the bait. She lured the two anti-racists deep into the Nevada desert with a promise of partying. The two men were met with gunfire instead. And since nothing in prison is private, staff had access to that backstory. It made her an unsympathetic character. That’s where Garcia stepped in. “You know, I had a lot of issues with staff making comments to me about why I was in prison, so (Garcia) made it where I could always go to him if I needed anything,” she said. “He always took care of everything for me.”

It started sweet. He would ask Melissa about her son. He gave her information about how to apply for furlough when her mother passed away in 2019 so she could try to attend the funeral. He told her she didn’t belong at Dublin since her crime was nonviolent. He gave her candy, told her they’d drink wine together at his timeshare in Napa Valley when her sentence ended and made her feel like she could trust him. Melissa enjoyed the thought of having an ally. “He made me feel special,” she said. “You know, he would tell me that he was there to make my time easier and that he was always, you know, going to protect me and make sure nothing happened to me.”

Things took a turn toward the graphic soon after. Melissa said Garcia became “very pornographic, very vulgar.” He’d ask her to pose naked for photos — photos the Federal Bureau of Investigation later uncovered on his government-issued phone. He began to grow physically rough with her. The progression follows a pattern present in most cases of grooming, which the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network defines as “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.” Abusers attempt to earn the trust of vulnerable victims and coerce them into keeping their relationship secret.

“The research on grooming in the community of girls and women is very clear. It’s a phenomenon,” says Alyssa Benedict, co-founder of the Women’s Justice Institute and partner with the National Resource Center for Justice Involved Women. “It has a psychological impact, and it’s doubled down in a prison context.” Benedict has found that grooming can become especially prevalent in prison due to the fact that many women are already victims of trauma and have fewer modes of accessing support. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report in 2020 that found that anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of incarcerated women have experienced some form of sexual or interpersonal trauma before beginning their sentences. And as the #MeToo movement has demonstrated, countless women may wait years to report abuse, if they do at all. Fear of retaliation, self-blame and encountering stigma drives the reluctance to come forward. The only difference is that incarcerated women are trapped in contained environments surrounded by those fears and their abusers.

Eventually, Melissa reached a tipping point. “He told me that he likes convicts, and he told me that, you know, a convict is somebody in prison that keeps their mouth shut, that turns their head to anything,” she said. She noticed that what Garcia claimed to like in her, he also liked in other inmates. Melissa caught Garcia courting another incarcerated woman. The notion that her experiences were no longer just her own, that they were indicative of something much larger and more sinister, became her final motivation to come forward. “He did the same thing to me that he did to her,” she said. Later, she added, “And I felt sorry for her. I did.”

Many of those who reported their experiences merely had their case overlooked, stuck in a backlog of allegations awaiting investigation. Many others didn’t report out of fear.

That same woman, Maria, later spoke in court. She, like Melissa, withheld her last name for fear of safety — even though she’d already been released from prison by the time she testified. She shared her story with the help of a Spanish-speaking translator, beginning with the memory of how she first met Garcia. Maria had worked in the prison kitchen as part of her work detail. Every morning, she’d prepare coffee and milk for peers and staff. She said Garcia would arrive early to greet her there. He’d tell her she’s beautiful, compliment her hair. He made an effort to act romantic toward her by writing letters and giving her a rose. “And one day he told me, ‘Do not forget that we are in a relationship.’” 

Maria believed him. He’d given her a false sense of security and even encouraged her to apply for compassionate release with the promise that he’d approve her paperwork. “And he said that he wanted to get to know me better when I was out, that we will get to know each other better.” So she applied. And she waited. Garcia had become more sexual. He showed her naked pictures of himself, and told her to wait undressed in her cell so he could watch her nude on his rounds. He helped her switch her work detail from kitchen to laundry room duty so he could see her more easily. Then in June, two months after Garcia suggested Maria applied for compassionate release, she learned that he denied her request. She’d been used.

Darya Shnykina for the Deseret News

Garcia’s abuse of the women of Dublin spanned from 2019 to 2021; for half that time he had served as associate warden, and the other half as warden. One of his duties as associate warden was to train prison employees and supervisors on the Prison Rape Elimination Act’s policies and procedures. He knew what was and was not permitted behavior. There is never any case where sexual relations between an incarcerated person and a bureau employee are considered consensual. The bureau advertises a zero-tolerance policy for any commingling. And even if he feigned forgetfulness, he got a refresher each year with staff training and every three years with a regular audit of the institution. He knew, no matter the response he received from the people he pursued, that he was committing a criminal act. So did the other four FCI Dublin employees — John Bellhouse, Enrique Chavez, Ross Klinger and James Highhouse — who have all been charged with sexual abuse of incarcerated women since the FBI investigation began in 2021.

“There’s no such thing as mutual consent, even if there is a relationship in that staff member’s mind between him and a female inmate, there is no such thing as mutual consent,” says Maureen Baird, a former warden of three different prisons within the bureau. That lack of gray area stems from the power dynamics at play. A bureau employee has power over any incarcerated person. Oftentimes, that power can place someone in solitary confinement, whittle away opportunities for good behavior and early release, or prevent visitation. And while abuse of power also impacts incarcerated men, the abuses come down hardest on women. “You have just a handful of female institutions, but you’ve got 100 and something federal prisons for men. So there are a lot more federal prisons for a man, but certainly a higher rate (of abuse) at a small number of female facilities.”

The dominoes start falling

Five days before the Senate released the results of its investigation, a grand jury convicted Garcia at the U.S. District Court in Oakland. The former warden was found guilty of all charges: three counts of sexual abuse, four counts of abusive sexual contact against three incarcerated women, and one count of lying to federal agencies. The abuse at Dublin has spurred so much outrage that it even helped prompt a Bureau of Prisons director’s resignation.

The scandal at Dublin is symptomatic of a larger institutional problem. Annual Prison Rape Elimination Act audits over the past five years show that an average of more than 400 allegations of staff sexual abuse are logged across all federal prisons. In January, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported more than 2,000 substantiated cases of inmate harassment or sexual misconduct instigated by prison staff from 2016 to 2018. Less than half of those instances resulted in legal action, termination or discipline. And that number — meant to account for abuse across all federal and state prison systems — is likely a gross understatement. Cases go unreported. Even of the allegations made, not all are investigated. A look into the last PREA audit Dublin faced before the federal investigation began shows how off the mark supervision can be: The prison passed with the audit stating that all standards were being met. 

Melissa’s story shed light on institutions across the West and throughout the Federal Bureau of Prisons that have been held in the dark for decades.

Abuse of power so pervasive can often only sustain itself through generations. After Garcia was removed, the Bureau of Prisons had Thomas Ray Hinkle step in as acting warden of Dublin. An investigation conducted by The Associated Press later found that Hinkle had an even longer history of abuse than his predecessor. He had bragged about being part of “The Cowboys” — a ring of correctional officers at a federal prison in Colorado who had brutally beaten Black inmates in the 1990s. Among the violent accusations against him include one by a former inmate who said Hinkle slapped and held him down while another officer sexually assaulted him, according to AP. Rather than reprimand Hinkle, the bureau promoted him. He’s now the bureau’s deputy director for the Western region. He helps oversee 20 federal institutions across a region encompassing Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, California, Hawaii, Washington and Alaska. One of them is Dublin.

FCI Dublin’s former warden was one of many government employees charged with assault and harassment. | Larry Farr / Unsplash

With Hinkle now acting in a higher position within the bureau, the current warden at Dublin is Thahesha Jusino. She’s tasked with the lofty responsibility of overseeing the prison at a time it’s most in need of monumental repair. In D.C., bipartisan bills like the Federal Prisons Accountability Act and the Federal Prison Oversight Act have been introduced in the House and Senate. They stand to offer more checks and balances in the hiring process for the director of the bureau, regular inspections of all bureau facilities and the appointment of an ombudsman to follow through on investigations into incarcerated individuals’ well-being. Although these plans have been presented, they have yet to gain traction. Neither have small changes like the installation of new security cameras. Michael Horowitz, the inspector general of the Department of Justice, said before the Senate in December that he’d been requesting more security cameras in bureau prisons for the better part of a decade. As of November, the project is still “ongoing” at Dublin. When and whether the bureau will complete it is uncertain.

Sentencing the warden

Solving an age-old systemic issue is as difficult as it sounds. Legislation and safety measures are merely pieces of a larger puzzle that includes a shift in work culture and follow through on accountability. Even when the Prison Rape Elimination Act became law in 2003 with the massive goal of eradicating rape for all incarcerated people across all correctional facilities, it proved unsound. Abusers found ways to circumvent it. They still do. But change is always worth striving for, especially with 1.68 million incarcerated people living in prisons across the country. And change, however incremental in the long run, can look like Garcia standing before 12 jurors in an Oakland courtroom. It can also look like bringing other offenders to justice. In May, another former FCI Dublin correctional officer, Darrell Wayne Smith, was arrested for the sexual abuse of three female inmates between 2019 and 2021.

On the final day of his trial, Garcia (who did not respond to requests for comment for this story) braced for the verdict that would change everything. He and Reilly maintain that Garcia was not guilty for any of the eight counts against him. He claimed the nude photos investigators found on his government-issued phone were taken as proof of Melissa trying to hide illicit activity in the facility; that he had come upon her naked in a cell, trying to cover up drugs, and he took a picture as evidence. That was the truth, he said. Garcia and Reilly felt confident about the trial. At that point, there had been no other bureau official in as high of a rank as Garcia convicted of sex crimes — no precedent suggested any action would be taken against him. 

But the jurors felt differently. Garcia was guilty, on all counts. As soon as it sunk in, the former warden let out an audible sigh in defeat. He fired Reilly and hired another lawyer four days later, perhaps in an attempt to soften the blow of his impending sentence. That sentence has since been determined to be 70 months in prison, 15 years of supervised release and $15,000 in restitution paid to his victims. Garcia is back in the prison system, with a cell of his own this time.  

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.