These Survivors Rooted Out Sexual Abuse in Federal Prison. Now They Face Deportation.

At least 26 women face the threat of deportation after reporting sexual abuse by prison employees. At least 11 have already been deported.

These Survivors Rooted Out Sexual Abuse in Federal Prison. Now They Face Deportation.

At least 26 women face the threat of deportation after reporting sexual abuse by prison employees. At least 11 have already been deported.

In fall 2020, when Haidi began working in the kitchen of Federal Correctional Institution Dublin, a low-security women’s prison in California where she was then incarcerated, she had already heard that some staff members sexually abused the women they supervised. She didn’t believe the rumors. But then she experienced the abuse herself.

A few months after Haidi began her job, a cook supervisor named Enrique Chavez turned his attention toward her. He asked for hugs at the end of each shift and invited her to accompany him on errands. He began touching her back and shoulders and bringing her food from outside. He asked her to touch him, and asked if he could touch her.

When Haidi refused, he told her that he had seen her file. He knew that she had children and knew where they lived. He also knew that she had an immigration detainer, meaning she would face deportation after her release from prison, which is scheduled for early June of this year.

“It made me really afraid to go to work,” Haidi, who speaks Spanish and asked to be identified by her first name only, told The Appeal through an interpreter in a recent interview. She began feigning headaches and illnesses to avoid going to work. At the same time, she said, “It was normal. It was what all the men in the kitchen were doing. So it felt bad, but also it was happening to everyone.”

Chavez threatened Haidi with the loss of the credits she had earned for good behavior—which could shave time off her prison sentence—and with solitary confinement in the Special Housing Unit (known as the SHU). Eventually, she stopped resisting his advances.

“I felt like I had to let it happen,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to the SHU, and I didn’t want to stay in prison longer.”

Federal law forbids any sexual contact between staff and incarcerated people, characterized as a felony that carries up to 15 years in prison. But issues of staff sexual abuse have long plagued FCI Dublin and many other U.S. prisons and jails. Federal law also protects immigrants who, like Haidi, are victims of or witnesses to certain criminal activities, such as trafficking, sexual assault, and domestic abuse. Under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, these individuals are eligible for a U visa, which provides temporary immigration status and the possibility of permanent residence.

But Haidi would soon discover that the U.S. government is notoriously tightfisted with U visas and has no qualms about deporting sexual abuse victims. Haidi is now among a group of at least 26 women who are facing the threat of deportation after being sexually abused at FCI Dublin or cooperating with federal authorities in investigations related to abuse, according to Susan Beaty, the supervising attorney of the Immigrants’ Rights Practice at Centro Legal de la Raza, an advocacy organization that conducts monthly legal-advice clinics at the prison. Ten of these women, including Haidi, are in federal prison with immigration detainers, which require the prison to hand them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after they complete their sentences. Sixteen are in deportation proceedings. At least 11 additional women have already been deported.

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At first, Haidi stayed quiet about Chavez’s assaults. Then, she attempted to report the abuse to Beaty. But administrators at FCI Dublin denied Beaty’s requests to arrange a confidential legal call.

In November 2021, Haidi was transferred to another federal prison, where administrators again denied Beaty’s requests for a confidential call. It took more than a year for Haidi to finally be able to arrange a legal call with Beaty. Afterward, Beaty reported Haidi’s complaints to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California and asked federal authorities to interview Haidi and certify her for a U visa. The U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t seem interested. They had already indicted Chavez on two counts of abusive sexual contact in a case involving another incarcerated woman and stated that the case was closed.

Chavez ultimately pleaded guilty to one count and was sentenced in February to 20 months in prison and 10 years of post-prison supervision. He was among the first five employees of FCI Dublin to face charges of sexually abusing women in custody as part of a wider investigation into sexual misconduct at the prison. Attorneys representing those victims have said that Chavez and other staffers convicted in the scandal often targeted non-citizens.

By refusing to certify Haidi’s petition for a U visa, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has effectively denied her justice twice. Chavez was never held accountable for abusing Haidi, and since he pleaded guilty in one case, the government seemingly has no interest in assisting another of his victims. Without further action on the part of the federal government, Haidi will likely be immediately transferred to ICE detention and face deportation when she is released from federal prison in June.

Beaty maintains that the U.S. Attorney’s Office could and should certify Haidi for a U visa. The Department of Homeland Security’s policy on U visas requires victims to report the crime and cooperate with law enforcement requests for assistance. The guidelines specify that eligibility is not tied to a current investigation or criminal charges, as both are outside the victim’s control.

To Beaty, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is failing to uphold its promise to immigrant survivors of prison sexual abuse by refusing to consider them for U visas.

“The federal case against abusive FCI Dublin officials was built on the backs of noncitizen survivors,” Beaty told The Appeal. “Every single one of the six FCI Dublin officials who have faced prosecution abused noncitizens, and many of their victims have already been deported. It is the responsibility of the federal government, including and especially the U.S. Attorney’s Office, to safeguard noncitizen survivors from indefinite detention, exile, and permanent separation from their families.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Justice told The Appeal to refer all queries to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE. ICE did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement to The Appeal, Randilee Giamusso, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency “strongly condemns all forms of sexually abusive behavior” at its facilities.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse of any kind and every person has the right to be safe from sexual abuse,” Giamusso wrote. “The BOP has taken assertive action at [FCI] Dublin to make changes regarding safety and communication.”

Abuse and Retaliation

The arrests at FCI Dublin last year drew unprecedented national attention to the issue of staff sexual abuse at federal women’s prisons, prompting a Senate subcommittee investigation and a Capitol Hill hearing on the matter in December. The prison’s former warden Ray J. Garcia, former chaplain James Highhouse, and Chavez have all been sentenced to prison. Former prison technician Ross Klinger has pleaded guilty but has not yet been sentenced. Another employee who was arrested, John Russell Bellhouse, began trial this week.

While the FCI Dublin scandal has in some ways brought the sexual abuse of incarcerated women out of the shadows, many victims of that abuse have been left to grapple with imminent deportation without assistance from federal authorities. Among them is Sarah (who asked that her legal name not be published). She is facing deportation despite cooperating with federal authorities on their investigation at the prison.

Bellhouse was Sarah’s job supervisor at FCI Dublin, she told The Appeal. He often commented on her appearance. Although he was in a sexual relationship with another incarcerated woman, he would tell her, “I wish you were my girlfriend,” or touch her hand whenever he handed her an item.

Those advances made Sarah uncomfortable, but she was earning nearly $46 per month working at the prison’s safety office, making it one of the prison’s better-paying positions. She knew that two of her coworkers were in relationships, one with Bellhouse and the other with a different officer. She told herself to mind her own business and do her job.

In early 2021, Bellhouse alleged that another officer had been visiting Sarah’s cell, insinuating that the officer was having an improper relationship with her. Prison officials launched an investigation, moving Sarah and her three cellmates to a different unit for 45 days, during which time they were unable to work or participate in programs. After reviewing surveillance footage, investigators cleared the women and allowed them to return to their cell.

For Sarah, the incident demonstrated Bellhouse’s willingness to exert his power over her. She switched to a non-paying job in the prison laundry. Even then, she recalled, Bellhouse continued to approach her and make unwanted comments.

Adding to the atmosphere of sexual abuse, the warden, Garcia, also made inappropriate comments to Sarah. She told The Appeal that she once found him going through photos in her cell. “You look more sexy with blond hair,” Garcia told her. Other times, he would say things like, “You’re so pretty. Is it from your culture? Are all the girls so pretty?” She also caught him openly staring at her.

In March 2021, Bellhouse was placed on administrative leave following allegations from another incarcerated woman. Eventually, FBI agents interviewed Sarah.

Afterward, guards subjected Sarah and other women to constant retaliation, she said. They stopped Sarah and searched her whenever she was out of her cell. They conducted frequent cell searches, claiming to be looking for prohibited items.

To cope, Sarah began taking anxiety medications.

The FBI agents who interviewed Sarah told her that they could help her with her immigration issues if she cooperated. They did not specifically tell her what that help might entail. The FBI declined to comment on the agency’s involvement in Sarah’s case or others related to abuse at FCI Dublin.

Last fall, Sarah finished her prison sentence and was transferred to the Northwest ICE Processing Center, a privately run immigration prison in Tacoma, Washington. Several months later, she was released on electronic monitoring and rejoined her family in California.

But Sarah’s ordeal continues. Bellhouse began trial this past Tuesday. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed her to testify against Bellhouse, but she still has not been offered a U visa.

“I understand how important it is,” Sarah told The Appeal about testifying. But talking about the unwanted advances, abuses of power, and retaliation she suffered makes her feel as though she’s been thrust back into that situation. “I know it’s the right thing to do. But it’s emotionally hard.”

‘I Can Do What I Want’

Karla(who asked to be identified by a nickname)is one of many women who was targeted by a guard named Darrell Wayne Smith at FCI Dublin.

“He was one of the worst,” Karla, who speaks Spanish, told The Appeal through an interpreter. Smith openly stared at women, followed them, and commented on their bodies.

He also entered Karla’s cell several times. The first time, she says, he blocked her door, telling her, “You need someone to make you happy. I can make you happy.”

Karla froze in fear. Fortunately, her cellmate returned and ordered Smith out. “You can’t be in here,” Karla recalled her cellmate saying.

“I can do what I want,” Smith retorted. He entered Karla’s cell again on other occasions. He followed her around, sometimes standing close behind her, other times trying to motion her into an empty cell for sex. Once, he stood outside the building staring through her window. Karla was unaware of his voyeurism until a woman in a neighboring cell yelled, “You have a stalker!”

Karla had been sexually abused as both a child and adult. Although Smith never physically touched her, his actions triggered a trauma response. Her body shook whenever she heard his voice. She spent nights lying awake, terrified that Smith, who worked the late shift, would enter her cell and rape her.

But Karla was too afraid to speak out. She had seen staff members retaliate against women who reported abuse, and Smith had warned her that he had looked at her file. “You’re going to be deported,” he would say. “I know people in Mexico, so you better watch your back.”

Karla continued to stay quiet. She continued to stay awake at night.

Finally, a program instructor helped Karla report Smith’s harassment. That instructor was transferred from the prison a few days later, according to Karla and Beaty, who has worked on Karla’s case.

Staff responded by subjecting Karla to constant cell searches, often confiscating her belongings, including photos and gifts her children had given her. Once, they confiscated all of her underwear and socks. Officials drug tested her each week, forcing her to strip and urinate into a cup while naked.

About one month after filing her complaint, FBI agents interviewed Karla. She told them about Smith’s conduct, and about another kitchen officer who made sexual comments and attempted to buy women’s attention with food from outside.

Prison investigators later told Karla that they could not substantiate her claim about Smith. Though video showed him entering her cell, there was no audio to verify her account of his verbal abuse. “It made me feel like they were saying, ‘We don’t believe you,’” she recalled.

Smith was allowed to continue working in Karla’s dorm.

In April, a federal grand jury indicted Smith on 12 counts of abusive sexual contact against three women. Karla wasn’t among them. He was arrested in May and released from custody hours later. Less than two weeks after the arrest, he made his first appearance in federal court in northern California.

By then, Karla had been transferred to ICE custody at the Northwest ICE Processing Center. Although federal authorities hadn’t filed charges related to her allegations against Smith, they had identified Karla as one of his known victims. The U.S. Attorney’s Office notified her of his arrest but didn’t communicate further.

From detention, Karla applied for a U visa, citing domestic violence she suffered before her incarceration. Her attorney asked federal officials to expedite processing her application, but they declined to do so.

In Karla’s mind, Smith “never should have been in a position of power where he could abuse so many people,” she said. “I feel a lot better now that it’s public what he did. I hope that means he can’t keep hurting people.”

Still, Smith’s threats weigh on Karla, especially as she faces deportation proceedings. “I’m afraid that if I’m deported, he’ll find me,” she said.

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