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prison guard locking The door of a prison cell or detention center.

Former Chaplain Added to List of Sex Abusers at Federal Women’s Prison

A federal correctional institution in Dublin, California, is under scrutiny once again. Former prison chaplain James Theodore Highhouse faces several charges, including sexual abuse and making false statements to investigators.

Highhouse is the fourth employee at the federal prison charged with sex crimes in the last several months. The others include the former warden and two former guards. 

FCI Dublin, located about 20 miles from Oakland, opened in 1974 and became an all-female facility in 2012. It is one of California’s five federal correctional institutions and currently houses about 750 women. Past inmates have included celebrity offenders such as Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, Patty Hearst and Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss.

A Toxic Prison Culture

According to the Associated Press, women began filing sex abuse complaints to the prison’s administration about five years ago, but “a permissive and toxic culture” at the facility has kept the abuse from the public eye.

In one complaint, an inmate described being taunted by her work supervisor. When he assigned her to work with a maintenance foreman she had previously accused of raping her, the supervisor reportedly replied, “Let the games begin.” 

Other complaints include an inmate who said that she was told nothing would be done when she reported her sexual assault to staff because it was a “he said-she said” situation. Another inmate reported a prison worker who openly claimed he wanted to get inmates pregnant.

A 2020 investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general and the FBI led to the arrest of the four men: Highhouse, Ray Garcia, Ross Klinger and John Russell Bellhouse.

Horrific Abuse By Male Superiors 

Garcia, the former warden, was charged in Sept. 2021 with sexually assaulting one woman and accused of sexually harassing another. He also took pictures of at least one inmate naked in her cell and stored them on his work computer. Authorities later confiscated them.

Federal prosecutors also allege Garcia asked at least two women to strip naked for him while doing his rounds. He then tried to prevent another woman from reporting his actions by telling her he was “close friends” with the staff member responsible for investigating inmate misconduct allegations. 

Bellhouse, a former prison safety administrator, was charged on Dec. 3 with engaging in sexual acts with an inmate. He was calling the woman his “girlfriend’’ and allegedly having oral sex with her in the prison’s safety office. All sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Sometimes, another inmate would serve as a “lookout” during these encounters. 

In June 2021, Klinger, a recycling technician at FCI Dublin, was charged with “knowingly” having sexual intercourse with at least one inmate inside a storage warehouse and another in a Conex storage container. He also used another inmate as a lookout. He maintained relationships with both victims after they were no longer at FCI Dublin, even proposing to one with a diamond ring after she moved to a halfway house. Klinger faces up to 15 years in federal prison. 

Highhouse allegedly had repeated sexual intercourse and oral sex with an inmate from May 15, 2018, to Feb. 9, 2019. Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 21, he allegedly lied to the FBI and Office of the Inspector General, denying any sexual relations with the women. He then signed a plea agreement and is scheduled to plead guilty on Feb. 23.

Prison Sex Abuse Is a National Issue

Women in prison are 30 times more likely to be raped than women who are not, and while females account for less than ten percent of inmates, their reports account for 75 percent of assaults. 

In May 2021 in Florida, about 15 women received a legal settlement of $1.26 million after bringing a lawsuit against prison officers at Orlando’s Coleman Federal Correctional Complex. The women had accused the officers of repeatedly forcing them to perform sex acts, assaulting them outside the view of surveillance cameras and stalking them into submission. 

One month later, in New Jersey, after several years of sexual abuse claims and violence brought on by prison guards at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton, Gov. Phil Murphy announced its closure

In addition to widespread sex abuse, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has suffered through several crises in recent years, including a rapid spread of COVID-19 among prisoners, a report of widespread criminal activity among employees, and the January resignation of its director,  Michael Carvajal. Carvajal resigned after months of being under fire for poor crisis management

Regardless of struggles at the top, prisoners have the right to safe living conditions while incarcerated. Spending time in a prison where crimes and violations are allowed to occur will affect their ability to rehabilitate and go on to lead lawful lives. 

Thahesha Jusino, who will take over as FCI Dublin’s warden at the end of this month, told the Associated Press she is “committed to ensuring the safety of our inmates, staff, and the public” and plans to “work tirelessly to reaffirm the Bureau of Prisons’ zero tolerance for sexual abuse and sexual harassment.”