Facing more than 45 sex abuse suits, judge could appoint special master over FCI Dublin prison

A federal court judge is being asked to appoint a "special master" over the Federal Correctional Institute at Dublin, an all-women's prison notoriously nicknamed the "Rape Club" after eight correctional officers have been charged with sexual assault and more than 45 civil cases have been filed alleging the same abuses. 

If U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers is persuaded by the plaintiffs – the women who say that they are still being retaliated inside the prison for reporting assaults and for seeking legal counsel – it would be the first such special master over a federal prison in the United States.

Bureau of Prisons spokesman Donald Murphy told KTVU that there has never been a special master in BOP history. 

A special master is appointed by a court to ensure that judicial orders are carried out. In this case, the orders would most likely mandate that women inside FCI Dublin get access to their lawyers and that federal Prison Rape Elimination Act laws are followed, as two examples. 

A special master was appointed over California state prison system in 1995 after a federal court ruled that it did not provide adequate mental health care. 

And locally, Oakland police, for example, have an independent monitor, who oversees that reforms are taking place under the watch of a federal judge. This oversight, similar to what a special master would do, has been going on in Oakland for 20 years. 

"The fact the judge has ordered the BOP to produce multiple employees from FCI Dublin for questioning immediately after the holidays and is considering our request to appoint a special master – a neutral outside party to investigate and help oversee reforms - is remarkable and shows how seriously the Court is taking this issue and the urgency of preventing additional sexual assaults," said Kara Janssen, an attorney with Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld, who is representing several of the women who filed suit. 

After a semi-chaotic, part in-person and part-Zoom Monday hearing involving dozens of plaintiffs' attorneys and government lawyers representing the BOP, Gonzalez Rogers ordered an evidentiary hearing on Jan. 3, where she will consider the California Coalition for Women Prisoners' request for a special master.

That's when she wants to hear from women inside the prison, who continue to allege that they are still facing retaliation and sexual abuse inside the minimum security prison.

"I am biased, but there's a good chance that she appoints a special master," Rights Behind Bars attorney Oren Nimni said. "She showed profound disappointment and anger with how the government has handled things at Dublin." 

Over the last couple of years, KTVU has spoken with more than 50 women who have shared their stories.

Two of the women told KTVU that officers made them have sex with each other, one testified she was told by the warden to insert a candy cane in her genital area, and several have reported receiving or performing sex or oral sex with officers at various spots throughout the prison.

Nimni, who is representing the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, told the judge that women are still being sexually assaulted as they face an unconstitutional risk by being held in custody there. 

The hearing will also be an opportunity for the government attorneys, who were ordered to bring evidence proving that all this abuse has stopped.  

Assistant US Attorney Madison Mattioli of Montana is representing FCI Dublin, as every other federal prosecutor in Northern California has a conflict of interest in the case. 

During the hearing, Mattioli told the judge that there have been "numerous, measurable steps" to correct the past abuses at the prison. 

In court papers, her team acknowledged there have been problems in the past, but when these problems were brought to light, the government worked "diligently … to remove the bad actors and otherwise remedy deficiencies at the facility. There is no ongoing problem for the Court to address via injunction."

But Yvonne Gonzalez quipped back.

"You've provided me with no evidence" of such programs, she told Mattioli.

The judge also criticized one of the government's key witnesses, Lt. Stephen Putnam, who was in charge of investigating all the abuse cases.

"Lt. Putnam never acted, he did nothing," Gonzalez Rogers said in court. "It's hard for me to trust Putnam, when he did so little." 

And she criticized the past use of the SHU, or the Special Housing Unit, which serves as an isolation unit for women, many of whom were sent to this solitary cell after they reported being abused or if they witnessed abuse.

"I do have issues with the SHU," the judge said. "How it was used and the pretext under which it was used." 

Gonzalez Rogers lashed out several times at the government attorneys and stated clearly that in her eyes, problems still persist at the prison.

Her opinions have been shaped, she said, by hearing women's testimony at the trials and sentencing hearings of former Warden Ray Garcia and supervisor John Bellhouse, who were both convicted by juries of sexual assault. 

Aside from these two jury trials, five other officers have also been found guilty of similar charges. 

Only the case of former correctional officer, Darrell "Dirty Dick" Smith, has yet to be resolved. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. 

 Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@fox.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez