Women at California prison dubbed the 'rape club' now worry where they'll be transferred

Keri Blakinger and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Women

The sun was barely up at the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California, but the prisoners knew there was something afoot.

The inmate workers still hadn’t left for their jobs that morning, and there were extra guards at the troubled federal facility in Northern California.

“We could tell these were not new officers,” Rhonda Fleming, a woman imprisoned at Dublin, told the Los Angeles Times in an email. “We knew they came from the men’s prison.”

But the women could only guess what was happening — and it made them tense.

After years of controversy, lawsuits and sexual abuse scandals, on Monday the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced plans to close the facility. But instead of bringing relief, for many prisoners the news sparked fear and confusion as the women worried about being moved far away from their families.

The facility in Dublin had been garnering headlines for years, and usually for nothing good. Inmates and their advocates cited problems with medical care, mold and overcrowding. But the prison was most notorious for a sex abuse scandal that earned it a reputation as the “rape club.”

After the FBI started making arrests in 2021, eight FCI Dublin employees — including a former warden — were charged with sexually abusing inmates. Several women sued the prison, and this year a federal judge appointed a special master to oversee the facility. Last month, federal authorities raided the facility, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons removed several of the top managers.

It was in the wake of all that, Fleming said, that several top prison officials burst into her housing unit around 7:30 a.m. on Monday. “FCI-Dublin is closing, all of you will be transferred by Friday,” Fleming remembered hearing the interim warden say. “That is all the information I have at this time.”

Federal officials in Washington announced the news publicly, saying “FCI Dublin is not meeting expected standards and that the best course of action is to close the facility.” Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters said the decision was made “after ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of those unprecedented steps and additional resources.”

Soon, lawyers for the women started getting calls as reporters informed them of Peters’ announcement. Michael Bien, whose law firm is handling the class-action suit, said that was the first he’d heard of the closure. It’s not clear what will happen to the prison, though officials said Monday that the closure “may be temporary but will certainly result in a mission change.”

Meanwhile at Dublin, panic set in.

Several incarcerated women — who asked to remain anonymous citing fear of retaliation — described a chaotic scene. They didn’t know where they would be going or when, and they watched as staff went from cell to cell and notified who was getting moved. One woman said the guards told people the transfers were only happening so officials could “take care of the asbestos.”

Aside from the uncertainty, the women worried about losing their belongings: Fleming said the guards told everyone they could only take one bag of property. She watched women around her try to eat any food they had saved up, and start throwing out any possessions they thought wouldn’t fit.

“You look around and pick and choose,” one woman said, as she recounted watching people try to figure out whether to use their limited packing space for photos of their children or for soap and shampoo. “I cried the entire time,” she added.

Despite the chaos, Fleming said most of the women around her seemed happy to leave the crowded 600-person lockup. Several current and former prisoners said that at times the facility has been so tightly packed that women were housed four to a cell in quarters so cramped some had to turn sideways to fit between the bunks.

“There was asbestos and mold, and paint was chipping off our beds and ceilings,” Maria Ledesma, a former Dublin inmate, told the Los Angeles Times this week. She said she was “surprised” the closure announcement didn’t come sooner.

Fleming concurred.


“Personally, I am very happy the prison is closing,” she wrote. “It is environmentally unsafe.”

Even so, some women were not pleased about the news of transfers. For many of those at Dublin, which is roughly 20 miles east of Oakland, a transfer to any of the other federal women’s prisons would mean being hundreds of miles farther from home.

“I lost my entire family in the pandemic,” one woman with family in California told the Times. “I don’t want to be going farther from the family that I have left.”

Experts shared their concerns. Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, said that even though the facility was “unfixable,” separating women from their families can be problematic.

“The closure will cause challenges given that these women will end up in facilities that might be very, very far from their homes,” she said. “It’s going to create strains on family relationships and make it harder for these women to reenter their communities.”

Since the 1970s, studies have shown that prison visits can reduce recidivism, according to a Prison Policy Initiative round-up of research published in 2021.

After the official announcement on Monday, the jurist overseeing the class-action case — U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers — quickly scheduled a midmorning status conference.

According to Amaris Montes, director of West Coast Litigation and Advocacy for Rights Behind Bars, Gonzalez Rogers told attorneys at the conference that she would issue an order pausing the transfers of inmates.

“The Court is aware that the Bureau of Prisons has announced its intended closure of FCI Dublin,” the order began, going on to say that given the agency’s “significant inadequacies,” officials would be required to figure out whether prisoners were eligible for home confinement, a halfway house or compassionate release before they could be moved to another prison.

Around 4 p.m., Fleming said, officials showed up at the unit with a copy of Gonzalez Rogers’ order.

“The prison is still closing, but the prison officials had to turn the buses around, and return about 75 inmates back to the prison,” Fleming wrote. Those who came back, she said, had none of their belongings and no clean clothes.

“The BOP employees LIED,” Fleming added, “telling us the inmates were coming back because they were not medically cleared, when in fact, the prison is under a court order requiring every transfer to be put before the special master.”

On Tuesday, federal prison officials declined to answer questions about how many inmates were transferred, or how many were turned back.

Amid Monday’s chaos, inmate advocates and criminal justice experts said that regardless of what happens with the facility closure, the long-standing problems at the facility are evidence of the need for outside oversight of the federal system.

“Closing the facility at Dublin does not do anything to change the underlying culture that contributed to rampant sexual abuse in prison,” said Shanna Rifkin, deputy general counsel of the prisoner advocacy organization FAMM. “Independent federal oversight can help address the underlying issues.”


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


blog comments powered by Disqus



David Fitzsimmons Jimmy Margulies Dennis the Menace Hi and Lois Al Goodwyn Bob Englehart