OAKLAND, Calif. — The former warden of a federal women’s prison known as the “rape club” went on trial on Monday, accused of assaulting inmates and forcing them to pose naked in their cells.
Ray J. Garcia, who retired after the FBI found nude photos of inmates on his government-issued phone last year, is among five workers charged with abusing inmates at the correctional facility federal court in Dublin, California, and the first to stand trial.
Opening statements began in federal court in Oakland on Monday, with prosecutors setting out evidence they say would show that Garcia’s abuse of multiple inmates followed a pattern, beginning with compliments, flattery and promises of transfers to lower security prisons and turned into sexual encounters. Garcia, 55, pleaded not guilty. If found guilty, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
An Associated Press investigation in February revealed a culture of abuse and cover-up that had persisted for years at the prison, about 34 miles east of Oakland. This reporting led to further congressional scrutiny and promises from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that it would address issues and change prison culture.
Garcia is accused of abusing three inmates between December 2019 and July 2021, but jurors heard from up to six women who say he groped them and told them to pose naked or in provocative clothing. U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said prosecutors could call three additional accusers as witnesses, even though their allegations were not part of her indictment.
One of the women testified on Monday that she began to develop romantic feelings for Garcia and that their first sexual encounter took place in the bathroom of the prison’s visitors’ area. The woman, whose job in prison was to clean the visiting room, said Garcia told her he knew of several parts of the visiting area that would not be captured by surveillance cameras.
“I felt like he cared about me and loved me,” the woman said, her voice cracking.
“He just said the sweetest and kindest things, it took me by surprise but I wanted to make him happy,” she said of their first sexual encounter in the bathroom. She said he later took naked photos of her.
Garcia’s attorney, however, argues that there was no surveillance video capturing the alleged sexual misconduct. Union officials have long complained that the prison has an insufficient number of cameras.
“The evidence will not show a single video of any of these alleged events,” Garcia’s defense attorney James Reilly said. In court documents, the defense argued that Garcia took photos of an inmate because he wanted evidence that she was breaking policy by standing naked.
The case, with undertones of #MeToo behind bars, is also likely to shine a light on the Bureau of Prisons, calling into question its handling of inmate sexual abuse complaints against staff and the process of vetting people who he chooses to manage his prisons. .
The AP generally does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they consent to be identified. Any sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional staff enjoy substantial power over inmates, controlling all aspects of their lives, from meal times to lights out, and there are no scenarios in which an inmate can give consent.
Garcia was promoted from associate director to director in November 2020 while still abusing inmates, prosecutors say. The Bureau of Prisons said it only discovered the abuse later. Garcia is the highest federal prison official arrested in more than 10 years.
The agency’s new director, Colette Peters, reiterated the agency’s zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct by staff and called for tougher penalties for workers who commit abuse. But as abuse raged in Dublin, the reporting process was inherently broken.
Garcia was responsible for training staff and inmates on reporting abuse and following the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act at the same time he was committing abuse, prosecutors say, and some inmates say that ‘they were sent to solitary confinement or other prisons for accusing employees of abusing.
Prosecutors say Garcia tried to silence his victims by promising he would help them get an early release. He allegedly told a victim that he was “a close friend” of the prison official responsible for investigating staff misconduct and that he could not be fired. According to an indictment, he also said he enjoyed frolicking with inmates because, given their lack of power, they couldn’t “ruin him”.
Garcia is also accused of ordering inmates to strip for him while he made his rounds and lying to federal agents who asked him if he had ever asked inmates to strip for him or s he had inappropriately touched an inmate.
“If they take their clothes off, I’ve already watched,” Garcia told the FBI in July 2021, according to court records. “I don’t schedule a moment like, ‘You take your clothes off, and I’ll be there.'”
Garcia was placed on administrative leave before retiring. He was arrested in September 2021.
Earlier this month, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco ordered U.S. federal prosecutors to “consider all laws,” including the federal Violence Against Women in Business Act. involving Bureau of Prisons employees accused of sexual misconduct.
In these cases, Monaco said prosecutors should consider asking judges for sentences that go beyond the federal guidelines if the sentence recommended in the guidelines is not “fair and commensurate with the seriousness of the offences”.
Of the four other Dublin workers charged with abusing inmates, three have pleaded guilty and one is due to stand trial next year. James Theodore Highhouse, the prison chaplain, is appealing his seven-year prison sentence, arguing it was excessive because it was more than double the sentence recommended in federal sentencing guidelines.
Sisak and Balsamo reported from New York. On Twitter, follow Michael Sisak at http://twitter.com/mikesisak and Michael Balsamo at http://twitter.com/MikeBalsamo1 and send confidential tips by visiting https://www.ap.org/tips/.