SAN DIEGO, Calif. - A California woman who said she was harassed and groped by multiple officers at FCI Dublin – and then was retaliated against for speaking up about it – was released from custody three years early, successfully arguing that no one should have to withstand sexual abuse as part of their prison sentence.
Aimee Chavira, 44, was freed and allowed to live at her sister's house in San Diego last week after U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo ruled that her 10-year drug sentence be reduced to time served.
The judge cited "extraordinary and compelling reasons" and that she posed no danger to herself or to the community.
"I feel OK," Chavira told KTVU on Monday. "I think I'm still trying to adjust. I'm a little nervous outside the home, so I think it's going to take time for me to adjust."
Her immediate plans include getting the mental health help she feels she desperately needs.
And right after that?
Reaching out to other women in her situation.
"It's not easy for the girls who stayed behind," she said. "If I am able to help them, I want to be the one."
Chavira was sentenced in 2018 for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, spending about two years at FCI Dublin where she said she was sexually harassed by at least five correctional officers.
One of the five – Darrell Wayne Smith – was charged this month by the Department of Justice with 12 counts of sexual abuse.
Another one of her alleged abusers, Nicholas Ramos, will never be charged. He died by suicide in August 2022 after being placed on leave amidst an internal investigation into his behavior.
Chavira said Ramos was former warden Ray Garcia's "right-hand man," who abused her verbally, mentally and sometimes sexually, where he had her strip searched for no reason.
Chavira was then transferred to a federal prison in Phoenix, where she said she was retaliated against for speaking up about her prior abuse. Her compassionate release motion said she was listed as a "troublemaker."
This fall, the Bureau of Prisons denied Chavira's request, saying that the officers' cases have not yet been "adjudicated."
But her attorney Erica Zunkel at the University of Chicago and her law students didn't give up.
Zunkel and her students crafted a detailed 195-page compassionate release motion detailing the abuses Chavira suffered. But they also laid out a plan for Chavira's re-entry in society and collected support letters from friends and family who said they will look out for her, house her and employ her.
The motion used several citations from more than two years of KTVU reporting, which has highlighted the stories of dozens of women who have spoken about sex abuse and retaliation they said they suffered inside FCI Dublin.
Zunkel said the federal prosecutor had no opposition to Chavira being released early, paving the way for the judge's recent decision.
While her prison term has now been served, Chavira will now be on probation for five years.
Chavira is one of 30 known women seeking compassionate release because of sexual abuse allegations at FCI Dublin, according to Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, the prison rights advocacy group behind the movement.
Chavira's request was among the first, if not the first, to be filed ahead of a forthcoming wave of similar motions.
KTVU is aware of some other women also winning their compassionate release motions, but details of those cases have yet to be made public.
"We hope that it will be foundational for other women who are also seeking relief," Zunkel said.
Chavira is well aware that she has taken on the Bureau of Prisons and individual officers in going public with her story.
And Zunkel called her client's actions very brave.
"She wants to give voice to women who haven't been able to talk about these things like she had," Zunkel said. "And I really admire her for that."
This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.
Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez