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A recent investigation into sexual abuse at a women’s federal prison in Dublin, California, brought down several guards and the prison’s former warden, Ray J. Garcia. But a new lawsuit from eight women now alleges that the investigation has not stopped the culture of sexual abuse. Erin Neff of the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners joins Rattling the Bars to discuss the new lawsuit and the underlying culture of sexual abuse found throughout US prisons.

Studio: Cameron Granadino, David Hebden
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. 

Do you know who Joan Little was? Joan Little was charged with the 1974 murder of Clarence Alligood, a white prison guard at Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina, who attempted to rape Little before she could escape. Little was the first woman in US history to be acquitted using the defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault. Recently, eight female prisoners dubbed the Rape Club by prisoners and correctional staff alike, found a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prison arguing that sexual abuse and exploitation have not stopped in Dublin FCI, despite the prosecution of a former warden and several former officers.

The lawsuit filed in Oakland by attorneys representing the prison and the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners also names the current warden and 12 former and current guards. It alleged the Bureau of Prison and staff at the Dublin Facility didn’t do enough to prevent sexual abuse going back to 1990. An Associated Press investigation last year found a culture of abuse and coverups that persisted for years at the prison. What does the #MeToo movement garnering public attention mean in terms of obtaining justice and relief for incarcerated women?

Here to talk about the current state of Dublin FCI and related issues is Erin Neff, who is a legal advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Welcome to Rattling the Bars.

Erin Neff:  Thank you, Mansa. Good to be here.

Mansa Musa:  Tell our audience a little bit about yourself.

Erin Neff:  My name’s Erin Neff. I work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. We are a grassroots organization that has been active in California prisons for the last 28 years. We began at Chowchilla with the CDCR giving support to a woman named Charisse Shumate, who was advocating for the lack of medical care. She actually did not survive her illness but she began a movement with us, with people on the outside to create advocacy relationships. We have been working mostly with the CDCR system in the women’s prison system and we are currently in the last few years working at FCI Dublin.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. Recently, information came out about the current state of Dublin Prison in Oakland, California, or in the Bay Area, as it relates to female prisoners being sexually abused. We know that in the federal prison system, they have what’s known as PREA, Prison Reform Enforcement Rape Act I think that’s what it stands for. But the concept of PREA is that anyone under the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prison, anyone under any state or local facility that has an issue about sexual abuse or sexual assault by either inmates or staff, have this mechanism where they can immediately contact someone, have the person who allegedly did something to them removed from the institution, and have the person that’s making the allegation removed from the institution. Then an investigation goes on and in the interim of that, until that is resolved, these people are never put in a place together.

Come to find out that in California, in Dublin in particular, in terms of this particular incident, it’s known that this is far more reaching than Dublin Prison. I read somewhere that it’s the culture of the prison system. Talk about Dublin first. Let’s talk about that and what’s going on as far as the lawsuit and how this came about, and if you can give historical context to it if you have one.

Erin Neff:  Yeah. So PREA is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and that should generally give a person who is experiencing sexual harassment or abuse a way to confidentially report this abuse, and that appropriate action and investigation will be taken against this person who is doing the abuse. In the case of Dublin, to give it a historical context, 30 years ago there was a horrific incident of abuse on many people, and there was a big case and a big settlement, and it is heartbreaking to see that 30 years later the same thing is happening. What it exposes is a culture of turning a blind eye to this abuse, there’s cooperation, and there’s coverup. It’s very difficult to report, let alone confidentially report.

In recent times, what you’re seeing are people being abused who are undocumented. So first of all, they are being targeted because the staff knows that they are people who are going to be deported. So there is an exposure there. They are threatened that if they say anything they’ll be deported. So these are people who’ve been here maybe their entire lives, all of their family’s here, she possibility that they will be deported – And I’m sure the staff lets them think that they have some power as to whether they can stay or go – So there’s that. They’re being retaliated against by being put in isolation, they are getting strip-searched, and it goes on and on. They’re being deprived of medical care, of mental healthcare. These people have really suffered tremendous abuse and on top of this abuse, they’re being punished again by not getting the medication that they were once taking.

That is a very common scenario where the medication that helped them survive in this place of incarceration, they’re not getting the medical care and they’re not getting counseling. In some cases, reports where they’ll get minimal counseling but it’s with a man who is part of the staff, they do not feel safe at all, their commissary is getting limited, harassment in the middle of the night. While this has been exposed, Warden Garcia was found guilty and sentenced to 70 months for his abuse, ongoing abuse. There was a chaplain, multiple correctional officers, and counselors who were cooperating and giving information to those who were abusing and they were giving people a way to target people who are more vulnerable; those, for example, who were undocumented. You’re seeing people transferred out of state if they do report, so they’re getting transferred away from their families and their communities. It goes on and on and on.

Mansa Musa:  We’re not talking about Orange is the New Black. We’re not talking about some HBO theoretical or theatrical rendition of what an ideal prison would look like in America. We’re actually talking about real live human beings. But talk about the lawsuit. Now we’ve reached critical mass to the point where we have a lawsuit. Talk about the lawsuit and in talking about the lawsuit, has an injunction been leveled against the institution to cease and desist? How are you able to get coverage for these women? Because as I said earlier and as you outlined, that type of fear permeates the population.

When you’re in prison – And I’ve been in prison myself, I did 48 years – When you’re in the prison environment and you don’t have any control whatsoever, to begin with, but the isolation really makes you feel like you don’t have any rights, and whatever’s going to go on with you that day or that period in time, either you’re going to accept it or you’re going to die trying to defend yourself. But at any rate, you’re going to be subjected to some harsh, cruel, brutal treatment, or mistreatment. Talk about the lawsuit, if an injunction is in effect, and how these women get coverage where they can get a sense of security.

Erin Neff:  Yeah. So CCWP is the organizational plaintiff for this case against the BOP, along with many individuals. Currently, where it stands is we are waiting for a response from the BOP, it’s currently a bit in what feels like a stalling stage on their part before the trial will be granted. So we are waiting on that. In the meantime, anyone who is part of this lawsuit and is also currently incarcerated – Some people have been released, but many are still incarcerated at Dublin or transferred – People that I am visiting are talking about being treated as less than human. Last week I sat across from someone who is being denied her medical care, and her mental healthcare, she feels completely forgotten, she feels completely hopeless, and she’s been subjected to isolation. This is a real person with children. She speaks to her children and her children are so worried about her because of her feeling of hopelessness. She’s already paying for her debt to society, she’s doing her time, and on top of that, she is being treated as less than human.

This isn’t a TV show, these are real people. The effect on that individual, the effect on their families, their children; it’s not isolated to that one person. So the hopelessness is very hard to fight against. What we try to do is educate them and inform them of what we are doing on the outside, and that they are not forgotten. They did recently say that they saw us when we filed the lawsuit and we had a demonstration out in front of the courthouse in Oakland and that was extremely empowering for them to know that people are active and that we are fighting.

Mansa Musa:  Like you said, this is not a TV show, this is no wait, go back, act like you’re distraught. Wait, go back, put in more emotion. No, this is real life. Speaking of the outside – And this is my perspective – And we’re talking about California, we’re talking about the Bay Area but we’re also talking about a state where if these women were in Paramount Studios, if these women were in some major corporation, if these women were anywhere in society being subjected to this #MeToo feminist movement, every ambulance-chasing lawyer would be outraged. They would be in an uproar, would be identifying the warden, the corporate leader, and trying to get charges against him trying to get him locked up, trying to get a lien on their money.

Do you feel like there’s a disconnect between these movements and women who are incarcerated? If so, why? If you can talk about that.

Erin Neff:  Well, yes. There’s a huge disconnect, even in the Bay Area people are not aware that this is going on. Unfortunately, what you see in the prisons, everyone knows, is we see Brown people, Black people, and poor people, people who are already vulnerable, people who have suffered tremendous abuse, and a blind eye is turned to these people. This is a capitalist society where we value people who are seemingly of value, and it’s a very, very tragic view even in California, where we are the most liberal state. We see people turning away from this, it’s incredibly painful to see that truth. People don’t want to see that, they don’t want to know what is happening in California.

Yeah. If you see someone on the outside, not to minimize the tragedy of that recent expedition to go see the Titanic, these millionaires and billionaires spent a ton of money and very tragically they died in this accident. You see an outpouring of interest and focus on this. Why are these people who are incarcerated of less human value?

Mansa Musa:  Right. Let’s give a context to people who are incarcerated. Because according to the judicial system and according to criminal law, we have what we call crime and punishment. A person is charged with a crime, the punishment they get is the amount of time they are to serve. Not how they serve their time; the amount of time. If I rob somebody and robbery incurs 10 years, the crime is I committed a robbery, and the punishment is 10 years. The punishment is not, I’m sentencing you to 10 years to go be raped, sodomized, brutalized, terrorized, and then released. The punishment is that I’m going to be sent to an institution. The next phase in my sentencing process and the narrative is that I’ll be sentenced to an institution that’s going to provide me with the means and the mechanism to make the adjustment for my ultimate return to society.

Not where I’ll be – As a female, more importantly than anything else – Subjected to coming into an institution and the way the prisons are… This is the prison culture in terms of how we look at people who are incarcerated. The institutions they are going to, we know the way the institutions are run, we know what goes on in these institutions. They probably even get there and they say, oh, yeah. You’re going to Dublin. The first thing I know is, there’s real abuse like this here, women are being … I’ve got to be on the lookout for this, I’ve got to be on the lookout for that. Automatically what happens is once I get into this environment, I’m automatically on the defense because I recognize the abuse about the environment proceeds itself.

Talk about the women. And you talked earlier about how some of the clients that you deal with are really depressed, and rightly so. But talk about how we’re able to get them to hold on and have faith and be more spirited about the fact that, not only that this too is going to pass, but the people that are responsible are going to be held accountable. That’s a fact. We know that based on y’all organization and y’all organizing. Talk about how you are able to get them to hold on and recognize that they’re not wrong for wanting to be human, they’re not wrong for expressing their desire for their humanity. The people who are wrong are the people who are abusing them and being given the authority to abuse them.

Erin Neff:  That’s right, yes. It’s an excellent point. The punishment is the time you do, and your time in prison is supposed to include opportunities for rehabilitation. That is another thing that people are allowed to do, programming. This programming can include AA, NA, ways to improve yourself, and codependency. This is another form of retaliation in that they deprive you of getting to take those classes and be in groups and in a community. So you are being doubly punished. What we try to do, we have in-person visits where we are trying to meet as many people as possible and let them know that we are here. We have a writing relationship with them, they have access to email where we start being in contact as much as possible. We use this as an opportunity to find out what is going on inside.

Now, no email or phone calls are confidential, so it’s not a guarantee that we can exchange real information. We have also a newsletter called The Fire Inside that CCWP has been publishing for 28 years. We have three issues a year. We send those to people in CDCR as well as the FCI Dublin. It’s in Spanish and in English. We solicit information and content and poetry and stories from them to get their stories out so that they are heard. Last week during my visit I shared the newsletter with many people and it was great because it’s also in Spanish. And it was –

Mansa Musa:  Right.

Erin Neff:  – Quite tragically, they are so moved because they are not used to having people acknowledge their existence and their suffering.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Erin Neff:  So the fact that that is happening and we are giving them a voice, we want to know what’s going on, we really want them to know that their stories are incredibly important and they are not suffering alone. Sometimes the only thing that we can do is write a letter and say we are here. How is your day going? That can make a huge difference. But things like the lawsuit is incredibly important. A demonstration in front of the courthouse when the case gets filed, these things are incredibly important because it does get inside.

Mansa Musa:  We want people to recognize that we’re talking about human beings, first of all. We’re talking about people, and human beings, but more importantly, we’re talking about women. The fact that in this society we deal with chauvinists, sexists, racists, bigoted societies, and capitalist societies, the fact that these things exist seems to overshadow what we’re talking about when we’re talking about people who were sentenced to serve time. The judge did not say when sentencing them, I’m sentencing you to 10 years in Dublin Federal Correctional Institution to be raped, sodomized, brutalized, dehumanized, and hopefully by the time that you return to society you’ll be a shell of a woman. No. The judge sentenced these women to imprisonment and to be rehabilitated.

But Erin, you’ve got the last word on this here. How do we get in touch with you? What do you want our viewers to take away from this here? More importantly, when you go back and talk to the sisters, tell them we send our solidarity out and big hugs.

Erin Neff:  Thank you so much. Thank you also for doing the shout-out to women, who are a more vulnerable population. Most of the time women end up in prison, have been system-impacted, or have been abused or trafficked, and end up in these situations where they’re getting abused even more. If you would like to get in touch with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, we have an advocacy program where we join people on the outside who are interested in reaching this population by doing advocacy and learning from the ground up. We are a grassroots organization, you can look at and send us an email and we will get you connected. We have orientations and trainings, bimonthly meetings to support you in this work. It is a really big community of amazing, amazing organizers and people with tremendous hearts to recognize that this problem – While isolated from what’s happening inside of a building, inside of a prison – Is impacting all of our lives.

Our communities are being impacted, your neighbor is being impacted. Whether you feel it directly or not, it is. We welcome everyone and please come and check us out. The women at the FCI Dublin would love to be in touch with you.

Mansa Musa:  Thank you, Erin. There you have it: The Real News, Rattling the Bars. Are you rattling the bars today? We see an event where the person threw their hat up in the air and when he threw his hat up in the air it was a moment where everybody came around and supported. This is that time. This is a throw-your-hat-up-in-the-air moment for women incarcerated throughout the US, more importantly in Dublin.

Nobody has the right. Nobody has the right. Nobody has the right to violate your body. Nobody has the right because you’re serving a sentence to come in and say because you’re serving time, or because you’re considered an illegal alien, or because you’re a woman, that I have a right to subject you to the most dehumanizing, inhumane treatment, only because I got the authority. I got the right to rape you. I got the right to sodomize you. I have the right to deny you your medication. I have the right to deny you food. I got the right.

No, you do not have the right. You do not have the right. The right is not given to you. The right that you have is to ensure that I’m in a safe environment. When you subject women to this cruel and unusual punishment, you’re going to be held accountable. We see this being taken place now through the work that Erin and the sisters and brothers in California are doing.

We ask you to continue to support The Real News and Rattling the Bars. It’s only from The Real News and Rattling the Bars that you’re going to get this information. You’re not going to get this information on ABC or CBS or NBC News. You’re not going to get this information from someone from the White House getting on a platform saying, yes, we find it’s problematic that women are being raped in prison and women are being sodomized in prison, and that we’re paying money for this to make sure that they do it with impunity. No, you’ll only get this information from The Real News and Rattling the Bars.

We ask that you look at this report. We ask that you investigate what’s going on in the prison system, particularly in California. We ask that you take a stand. If you believe that raping people, sodomizing people, and abusing people are a good thing to do because they were convicted of a crime, then weigh in on that. But understand this here: if they come for me in the morning, they’ll come for you at night. So you’re not immune to it, you will be subjected to the same harsh treatment when it goes unchecked. Thank you very much, Erin. Thank you for listening.

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Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.