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Women Speaking Up About Sexual Abuse Behind Bars Face Retaliation in California

Despite highly publicized arrests and promises of change, sexual abuse and retaliation continue at the prison in Dublin.

The federal prison in Dublin, California, made nationwide headlines in 2022 when six employees, including the warden and chaplain, were arrested for sexually abusing women in custody. Later, two more guards were arrested, giving Dublin the highest number of staff charged with sexual abuse of any U.S. prison. Since then, seven employees, including the warden and chaplain, have been convicted or pleaded guilty. The eighth, Darrell Smith, whose abuse was so egregious that women nicknamed him “Dirty Dick Smith,” is going to trial on 12 counts of sexually abusing three incarcerated women.

These much-publicized arrests, prosecutions and prison sentences, however, have done little to change the prison’s ongoing atmosphere of sexual abuse and retaliation against those who speak out.

In August 2023, survivors at Dublin filed a class action suit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) for continuing to allow the conditions that fostered “the rape club.” Their suit also demands an end to placing survivors into solitary confinement as well as improved access to off-site medical and mental health care.

As reprisals continue, survivors are now asking a federal judge to appoint a special master, or independent monitor, to ensure that court ordered changes are implemented. If she does, it would be the first time in the history of the Bureau of Prisons, the agency that runs the federal prison system.

In early January 2024, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers held a four-day hearing during which high-ranking prison officials testified about the changes which has been implemented. Currently incarcerated women testified that these changes failed to stop ongoing harassment, abuse and retaliation.

Rogers castigated the Bureau of Prisons administrators for placing people in the Special Housing Unit (the SHU, or solitary confinement) after they reported sexual harassment and abuse. “It’s hard to say it’s not punitive when you’re restricted to an hour, maybe an hour and 15 [minutes] outside, which is vastly different from general population,” she told prison officials, who had claimed that the isolation was not meant as punishment. “You’re treating them just like someone who is being disciplined, which suggests it’s punitive.” She also issued a court order expressly prohibiting the transfer of the 13 people who testified.

That didn’t stop officials from placing women in the SHU, this time as retaliation for testifying, or from transferring them to other prisons.

Transferred Illegally After Testifying

Rhonda Fleming, 58, had previously experienced sexual abuse at the federal prison in Hazelton, West Virginia. When she reported the abuse, staff beat her and placed her in the SHU.

At Dublin, Lieutenant Baudizzon, who is in charge of sexual abuse complaints, periodically called her into his office to ensure that she was not facing further retaliation. But that didn’t stop him from threatening her when she attempted to help others.

In August, Fleming printed paper copies of the newly filed class action lawsuit for other women, including the lead plaintiffs. According to her testimony, Baudizzon called her into his office. He brought her to a part of the office which contained cells, warning that he would place her in protective custody if she did not stop distributing copies.

In prison, protective custody is similar to punitive segregation, or the SHU, in which a person is confined to a cell for nearly 24 hours each day. She agreed to stop distributing copies. “I only agreed so as not to be placed in the SHU,” Fleming wrote in a grievance filed against him.

One month later, Fleming learned about another act of reprisal. Her security level had been changed. Previously, prison officials had classified the 58-year-old as out-custody, which would have allowed her to leave the prison in the event of a family hospitalization or death. In September, they changed it to in-custody. If one or both of her elderly parents was hospitalized or died, she would be unable to visit them in the hospital or attend their funeral.

Survivors at Dublin filed a class action suit against the federal Bureau of Prisons for continuing to allow the conditions that fostered “the rape club.”

Still, the retaliation did not stop her from testifying in court. “I have been incarcerated for over 16 years,” she told Truthout. “I have taken on the federal system wherever I was housed. I did not feel like I had a choice. I was raised by parents and grandparents that fought for civil rights in the Deep South. So, I had it in my spirit, I had to fight back.”

Two weeks later, prison officials placed her in the SHU, telling her that she was under investigation and that she was a potential threat to security. “That’s their standard statement to everybody,” Fleming said.

In the SHU, she and others were denied shampoo, lotion, decent deodorant, hair combs and other basic hygiene items, including an adequate number of menstrual pads.

Fleming immediately embarked on a hunger strike to protest both her isolation and the SHU conditions, including the smaller meals that staff gave them. “If I am going to starve, let me starve myself,” she explained. Nine other women embarked on their own hunger strikes to protest SHU conditions, including their inability to report Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) violations.

Fleming told Truthout that, during their hunger strikes, a lieutenant repeatedly told women that if they did not stop, they would be issued incident reports for a “demonstration.”

“More incident reports increase the time spent in the SHU,” Fleming explained. The threat worked and, gradually, the other women resumed eating. Fleming, however, remained on hunger strike for seven days. Staff wrote her an incident report, alleging that she had two screws and some tape among her belongings. The violation was classified as high severity, a classification normally reserved for actions such as fighting, escape and sexual assault. If she had been found guilty, Fleming could have spent 10 months in the SHU and/or lost up to 90 days of good conduct credits, extending her prison stay.

Despite the judge’s order prohibiting the transfer of the incarcerated witnesses, Fleming was transferred on February 6. She was placed in handcuffs and leg irons, then driven six hours to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. She was given no explanation.

Baudizzon still works at Dublin. When asked about Fleming’s allegations and the reason behind her transfer, BOP spokesperson Randilee Giamusso said: “The Federal Bureau of Prisons strongly condemns all forms of sexually abusive behavior and takes seriously our duty to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody. All allegations of misconduct, including retaliation, are referred for administrative action and/or criminal prosecution. Due to active litigation, we will decline to comment further while this matter is pending before the court.”

At MDC Los Angeles, Fleming has met two women who have been sexually abused — one at MDC and the other at the nearby Victorville prison camp.

“I am watching both women be abused by the system, but the same regional director’s employees that are supposed to be correcting things at Dublin. I was stunned that the employees were operating under the same playbook of punishing the victim, while they are in court alleging they have clean everything up,” she wrote.

Eight days after her transfer, the MDC’s disciplinary hearing officer expunged the report, noting that Dublin staff failed to provide photos of the alleged contraband. Ten days later, Fleming was returned to Dublin.

Asked whether she thought the transfer was to prevent her from speaking further with the judge, Fleming told Truthout, “100 percent.” She also believes her isolation and transfer served to scare others from coming forward.

Punished for Reporting Misconduct

“KD” also knows that the culture of harassment and retaliation continue despite officials’ proclamations of change. (KD and her family asked that their names not be published to lessen the chances of retaliation.)

KD was transferred to Dublin in 2023 after the much-publicized arrests. Still, the atmosphere was hostile and she described staff behavior as paranoid. “They’re mad at the prisoners for having a voice,” she tearfully told her aunt.

That September, a female officer ran her hands over KD’s breasts during a pat frisk. Other women had similar experiences with that officer but advised KD that she would suffer retaliation if she reported it.

As reprisals continue, survivors are now asking a federal judge to appoint a special master, or independent monitor, to ensure that court ordered changes are implemented

Nonetheless, KD reported the incident to the Department of Justice, which is in charge of the federal prison system. The next day, she was called to see the prison’s psychologist, who said that what had happened was a violation of PREA, which prohibits sexual contact between staff and incarcerated people.

“I never felt like it was a sexual advancement of any kind,” KD later testified. “I just felt like she was being overly aggressive. It felt like I was reporting misconduct, not what I would feel would be considered a PREA.”

Nonetheless, the psychologist sent KD to Baudizzon, the lieutenant in charge of sexual abuse investigations. “Can I feel safe in talking to you and telling you what happened with me?” she told the court that she asked him. “Is it not going to be used against me? I have to live in the same unit …[her] office is 20 feet from my cell.”

According to her testimony, Baudizzon assured her that she was safe in telling him.

The next day, however, staff charged KD with filing a false PREA report. They took away her phone calls, video visits and in-person visits, leaving her unable to communicate with her family. She was also prohibited from shopping at commissary, or the prison’s sole store, preventing her from buying water, food, clothing or shoes. She was removed from her job at commissary, which paid her 20-30 dollars each month, and was reassigned to mop the floors for five dollars a month. Her supervisor is the same officer against whom she filed a complaint.

That officer is also the one in charge of approving visiting applications. For months, KD’s daughter — as well as another aunt and uncle who live near the prison — had submitted applications. The officer continually claimed not to have received them.

That was when KD decided to talk to the attorneys who had been talking with other sexual abuse survivors at Dublin. She had previously avoided them, fearing retaliation.

Shortly after she told the attorneys about the retaliation, prison staff reinstated her calls and visits. Still, her relatives’ visiting applications remained in limbo until early February — nearly a month after the judge ordered officials to approve the applications. Shortly before Valentine’s Day, she and her daughter saw each other for the first time in five years. They spent the first several minutes hugging and crying in joy.

Other sanctions remain. KD is still unable to shop at commissary. Staff frequently search her cell, a process that resembles a ransacking with her belongings torn apart and scattered across the floor.

KD’s aunt was in the courtroom when she testified. That night, KD told her that, when she returned to the prison, staff searched her cell — flipping over her mattress and bedding and strewing her belongings everywhere. Despite this, her aunt told Truthout, KD sounded empowered by the experience — a stark difference from her previous calls where she tearfully described the environment and asked, “What’s going to happen to me?”

“They Want to Throw People in Fear”

By the early January hearing, 19 out of Dublin’s 207 staff had been placed on administrative leave. Those 19 employees included five female managers who had been brought in as the prison’s new leadership and a signal that the “rape club” culture was changing.

Still, neither sexual harassment nor retaliation has stopped. Over the course of two days, Fleming and KD were among 13 people incarcerated at Dublin who testified that staff had instituted strip searches after legal visits, male staff watched women on the toilet, male staff opened the curtains as women showered, and staff touched and groped incarcerated women. They also testified that staff withheld their legal mail and other mail for six weeks, threatened or placed them in the SHU, rescinded their release to home confinement, changed their security classifications, removed their credits towards early release under the First Step Act, removed them from better paying jobs, and subjected them to frequent cell searches where their belongings were thrown around.

On February 14, Judge Gonzalez Rogers made a nine-hour semi-surprise visit to Dublin, telling prison officials about her plan to visit at 9 pm the night before, and arriving at 7 am. She talked to over 100 women, many of whom lined up to speak to her. They told her about receiving incident reports, shoddy medical care, having their medications stopped, being yelled at by staff and having their release to home confinement rescinded. She also spoke with women who had initially agreed to testify, but changed their mind after experiencing retaliation.

KD was among those who approached the judge. She thanked Gonzalez Rogers for ensuring that she was able to see her daughter. She also told her that her approval for home confinement had been rescinded and that, upon release, she was approved only for a halfway house.

In the SHU, women pressed their faces against the windows of their cell doors to flag the judge’s attention. They told her about not receiving hygiene items or clean sheets and towels, not receiving all of their meals, and constant delays in medications. They also told her that Fleming had been transferred in violation of her court order.

The following day, the judge posted an order to the U.S. attorneys representing the Bureau of Prisons to show cause (or give reasons) why she should not hold them in contempt of court for violating her order and scheduled a hearing for Tuesday, February 27. She also ordered them to immediately fix the showers, which only ran cold water, and to address the asbestos and black mold, which women had complained about for years.

On Friday, February 16, 10 days after she was transferred, Fleming was sent back to Dublin. “Now, the prison officials are up to the same old game of intimidation and in denial,” she told Truthout. Although she had undergone a medical exam at MDC-LA, a health services administrator insisted that she go to the clinic for an exam. Aside from one camera at the entrance, the clinic has no other surveillance cameras — and Fleming knew women who had been sexually assaulted there. “My instinct told me not to go anywhere with these people,” she said. She repeatedly refused.

Fleming arrived with only the clothing on her back. She was told that she would not be given another set of clothing — or any of her legal or personal belongings — until after the holiday weekend. Only after she told staff she would inform the judge and attorneys did officials give her one additional set of clothing for the five-day stretch.

“They want to throw people in fear,” Fleming reflected. Some women have told Fleming that they had been afraid to approach the judge during her visit. “I don’t want what happened to Ms. Fleming to happen to me,” one woman recalled telling the judge.

While the Bureau of Prisons declined to answer questions about Fleming’s transfer, its director, Colette Peters, told 60 Minutes in late January, “I have been very clear that retaliation would not be stood on my watch. When allegations come forward, they are investigated and we will hold those people accountable.” Three days after the segment aired, Fleming was placed in the SHU.

Three days after her return to Dublin, an investigations officer told Fleming that the warden had ordered him and Baudizzon to comb through her emails and recordings of her phone calls and video visits for any rule violations. They found no wrongdoing but still placed her in the SHU. He also told her that the warden continued to press them to write incident reports stating that she was a threat to the prison so that she could be transferred. The following day, she and her attorney filed a declaration attesting to this with the court.

“It’s witness intimidation,” Fleming told Truthout.

Fleming has spent over 16 years in various federal prisons. She noted, “The situation at Dublin is not unique. I have been in custody at several federal facilities. It is the same everywhere: Women are being coerced into sex with staff.”

Still, she said, “The prison [at Dublin] needs to be closed because the FBOP keeps bring more and more of the same employees, with poor training and an attitude that women do not have civil rights.”

“At least 100 to 200 women are eligible, right now, for transfer to home confinement or a halfway house. If the BOP complied with their own regulations, these women would be back in their communities,” Fleming pointed out. “My goal is to get as many women out of prison, sent to halfway houses and home confinement. There are resources at halfway houses that can be used to help women with reentry. After over 16 years, I want the opportunity to go to a halfway house.”

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