DUBLIN, Calif. - Four correctional employees - including the warden - at the federal all-women's prison in Dublin have been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with an array of sexual assault crimes in a widening probe that is exposing an apparent abuse-of-power pattern at a single East Bay facility.
Allegations include correctional workers having sex with incarcerated women in shipping containers to taking their naked photos during regular rounds.
The three correctional officers are still currently employed with the Bureau of Prisons, a spokeswoman confirmed. The warden retired three months ago.
The serious charges from so many employees at one facility have gotten the attention of lawmakers at the highest level.
"I’m deeply concerned about the allegations of abuse at FCI Dublin, and I’m glad the FBI and federal prosecutors are holding accountable those responsible," said U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, who represents the Dublin area. "I look forward to hearing more from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General regarding the full extent of the problem."
The allegations come amidst the backdrop of a larger, federal prison system that has been rife with corruption and misconduct. Three months ago, the Associated Press reported that more than 100 Bureau of Prisons workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since 2019, as the agency turned a blind eye to misconduct allegations.
A representative from FCI Dublin did not comment on the situation.
"While we appreciate the request, we respectfully decline the offer for an interview," the spokesperson wrote in an email.
However, in general, the spokesperson said that the "Bureau of Prisons takes very seriously our duty to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody, as well as maintain the safety of correctional staff and the community."
Low-security women's prison
FCI Dublin holds about 700 incarcerated women who are considered low-security. It is one of the country's 122 federal prisons, and one of five all-women prisons in the federal system.
Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin spent time there for their involvement in the college admissions bribery scandal. Other famous inmates over the years have included publishing heir Patty Hearst and Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss.
The prison opened in 1974 and was converted to an all-female facility in 2012. It is adjacent to Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail.
Actress Felicity Huffman served time at FCI Dublin.
Prison chaplain accused of ‘sexual abuse of ward’
The latest criminal charges against an officer in the Bay Area were made public on Tuesday. Federal prosecutors charged James Theodore Highhouse, a corrections worker and chaplain, with felonies including the "sexual abuse of a ward" at FCI Dublin, having abusive sexual contact and then making false statements about his behavior.
The charging documents allege that Highhouse had sexual intercourse and oral sex with a woman identified as "L.I." from May 15, 2018, to Feb. 9, 2019. Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 21, 2019, Highhouse allegedly lied to the FBI and Office of the Inspector General, telling investigators he hadn't had any sexual relations with the woman.
Highhouse has not yet made his first court appearance, according to court records. He faces up to 15 years in federal prison if convicted. He did not have an attorney listed on record and he could not immediately be reached.
Highhouse is only the latest Dublin prison employee to face sex charges.
Warden charged having women strip naked for him, nude photos
In the last six months, three others at FCI Dublin have been charged by the DOJ as well, including the prison's warden, Ray J. Garcia,, 55, of Merced, Calif.
In September 2021, federal prosecutors accused him of sexually assaulting one woman, sexually harassing another and keeping naked pictures of one of the women on his work computer. Federal prosecutors allege that at one point, Garcia requested that at least two women strip naked for him while he was doing his rounds.
Garcia allegedly took pictures of a woman naked in a cell and then showed her pictures of his private parts, court documents state. He also kept several nude pictures of one of the women on his personal computer, court documents allege.
Garcia then allegedly tried to prevent the woman from coming forward, telling her that he was "close friends" with the person responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct by inmates adding that he could not be fired, according to an FBI affidavit filed with the court.
Garcia was placed on administrative leave in July 2021 in connection with the investigation. It was that same month the woman's attorney first brought the sexual assault allegations to the Department of Justice's attention.
For two years before his arrest, Garcia led training on the Prison Rape Elimination Act and trained all newly arrived supervisors on these procedures and policies.
Garcia's attorney, James Thomas Reilly of San Rafael, did not immediately respond for comment.
Garcia retired on Oct. 31, 2021.
Prison safety administrator asked woman to be "lookout" during sexual encounters
Two months earlier in November 2021, John Russell Bellhouse, 39, of Pleasanton, who had been a safety administrator at the prison, appeared in federal court to face the charge of sexual abuse of a prison ward at FCI Dublin. Federal prosecutors allege that in 2020, he began to express an interest in a particular woman at the prison and started calling her his "girlfriend."
He allegedly provided her with earrings and allowed her to use an office phone. The two allegedly had sexual encounters, court documents state, and sometimes, they had another incarcerated person acting as a "lookout."
In March 2021, Bellhouse was put on paid administrative leave.
Last week, his attorney Shaffy Moeel asked that Bellhouse be allowed to go to Colorado if his mother signs a $50,000 bond for him to appear for court hearings. A judge is expected to hear his request on Jan. 24.
Moeel did not respond for comment.
Correctional officer had sex with women in shipping and storage containers
And in the first case to break at FCI Dublin, federal prosecutors charged Ross Klinger, 36, of Riverside, who also was a recycling technician at the prison, in June 2021 with "knowingly" having sexual intercourse with at least one incarcerated woman in a storage warehouse.
After he transferred to a different prison in San Diego, Klinger than allegedly kept in touch with the woman using the alias "Juan Garcia," and communicated with her through email and video visits, court documents allege. Klinger also gave money to her mother and visited her family, including her young children, court documents allege.
He was also sexually involved with a second woman, with whom he had sex with in a shipping container, while her friend kept lookout, prosecutors charge. After she was released to a halfway house, prosecutors allege Klinger kept texting her and sending her Snapchat messages. Klinger also proposed to her with a diamond ring, court documents state.
The alleged abuses occurred from April to October 2020.
Court records show that Klinger was allowed to wait for his court hearings at home, and then leave his house for a new job. Court documents do not state where Klinger is now working.
Klinger is being represented by John Paul Reichmuth of the Federal Public Defender's Office in Oakland, who did not respond for comment.
Klinger's next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 31.
A cell at the Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin (FCI Dublin) is photographed in Dublin, Calif. (Bea Ahbeck/Bay Area News Group archive)
Prosecutors say prison officials must not take advantage of power
Federal prosecutors said it's upsetting when the powerful take advantage of their positions and they must be held to account.
"Prison officials are given great power over incarcerated individuals and are entrusted to use that power to ensure the care, safety, and control of the people placed under the government’s supervision," Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hinds said at the time.
"The abuse of these powers echoes through the entire criminal justice system and threatens to compromise the public’s trust in the system’s legitimacy," Hinds continued. "The allegations…describe a disturbing deviation from the responsibilities of correctional officers. Such an abuse of power will not be tolerated."