US prison warden found guilty in ‘rape club’ abuse case

Ray Garcia is first of five defendants to go to trial on charges of abusing detained women in a California prison.

Ex-prison warden Ray Garcia exits courthouse, a cup in hand
The case against Ray Garcia, seen here leaving a federal courthouse in the US city of Oakland, calls into question how the Bureau of Prisons handles sexual assault cases [Jeff Chiu/AP Photo]

The former warden of a federal women’s prison in the United States where inmates said they were subjected to rampant sexual abuse has been convicted of molesting inmates and forcing them to pose naked in their cells.

Ray Garcia was found guilty of eight charges on Thursday and faces up to 15 years in prison. He was among five workers charged with abusing inmates at the federal correctional facility in Dublin, California – reportedly known as the “rape club”. He was the first to go to trial.

Garcia, 55, retired from his post last year after the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found nude photos of inmates on his government-issued phone. Garcia was charged with abusing three inmates between December 2019 and July 2021.

Prosecutors argued at trial that Garcia’s abusive conduct followed a pattern that started with compliments, flattery and promises of transfers to lower security prisons, but escalated to sexual assault.

An Associated Press investigation in February revealed a culture of abuse and cover-up that had persisted for years at the prison, about 34km (21 miles) east of Oakland. That reporting led to increased scrutiny from the US Congress and pledges from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that it would fix the problems and change the culture of the prison.

The trial has called into question the BOPs’ handling of sexual abuse complaints from inmates against staff and the vetting process for the people it chooses to run its prisons.

The federal corrections institution in Dublin, California
Prosecutors allege that the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, was the site of years of sexual abuse against imprisoned women [File: Ben Margot/AP Photo]

All sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional employees enjoy substantial power over inmates, controlling every aspect of their lives from mealtime to lights-out, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent.

Garcia was in charge of staff and inmate training on reporting abuse and complying with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act at the same time he was committing abuse, prosecutors allege. Some inmates say they were sent to solitary confinement or other prisons for accusing employees of abuse.

Prosecutors say Garcia tried to keep his victims quiet with promises that he would help them get an early release. He allegedly told one victim that he and the prison official responsible for investigating staff misconduct were “close friends”, and that he couldn’t be fired. According to an indictment, he said he liked to cavort with inmates because, given their lack of power, they couldn’t “ruin him”.

Garcia is also accused of ordering inmates to strip naked for him as he made his rounds and of lying to federal agents who asked him if he had ever asked inmates to undress for him or had inappropriately touched a female inmate.

“We see inmates dressing and stuff … and if they’re undressing, I’ve already looked,” Garcia told the FBI in July 2021, according to court records. “I don’t, like, schedule a time like, ‘You be undressed, and I’ll be there.’”

Garcia was placed on administrative leave before retiring. He was arrested in September 2021.

Last month, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco directed federal prosecutors across the US to “consider the full array of statutes”, including the federal Violence Against Women Act in cases involving BOP employees accused of sexual misconduct.

In those cases, Monaco said prosecutors should consider asking judges for sentences that go beyond the federal guidelines if the sentence recommended in the guidelines isn’t “fair and proportional to the seriousness of the offences”.

Of the four other Dublin workers charged with abusing inmates, three have pleaded guilty, and one is scheduled to stand trial next year.

James Theodore Highhouse, the prison’s chaplain, is appealing his seven-year prison sentence, arguing that it was excessive because it was more than double the recommended punishment in federal sentencing guidelines.

Source: The Associated Press