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Prison sexual assault victims can now petition for compassionate release

Aimee Chavira, shown weeks after she was released from the Federal Correctional Institution Dublin, which is near Oakland, Calif.
Aimee Chavira
Aimee Chavira, shown weeks after she was released from the Federal Correctional Institution Dublin, which is near Oakland, Calif.

For years, Aimee Chavira suffered sexual abuse in a Dublin, Calif., federal prison by the officers responsible for protecting her.

Now, thanks to a program known as compassionate release, she is free. And her freedom could help pave a similar path for other people who experienced physical or sexual assault behind bars.

"We are very hopeful that this can lead to more women who were abused at Dublin getting out," said Erica Zunkel, Chavira's lawyer.

Chavira, 44, has been home for less than two weeks after learning her request for compassionate release had been granted by a federal judge. Those petitions allow people in prison the chance to convince a court they should be freed because of extraordinary and compelling circumstances.

Typically, those cases involve terminal illness or other dire medical conditions. In April, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a federal body that sets advisory guidelines, voted to expand the bases for compassionate release to include sexual and physical assault by prison workers.

Imprisoned sexual assault survivors make the case for compassionate release

Chavira reported her abuse to a psychologist and a warden at the Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin. But they did nothing. The warden later was convicted of sexual abuse and lying to the FBI.

Five other officials have been charged with sexually abusing women at the facility, in what became known as a so-called "Rape Club." One of them, John Bellhouse, was convicted this week on charges that include sexual abuse of an incarcerated person.

Chavira said she knows women from the Dublin prison who have been moved to other facilities, where they continue to suffer retaliation and face trauma.

"This is just one prison that's coming out to the light," she said. "What's happening in all the rest of the prisons with the rest of the people that don't have any help or a voice?"

Last year, a bipartisan probe by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found widespread sexual abuse by officers in federal prisons with few consequences for those officers.

Chavira is now reunited with a close circle of family members near San Diego. But her joy in being home is often dampened by her fear of strangers.

"I haven't been out very much," she said. "I think interacting with people outside of the prison is what makes me nervous. I think it's going to take time for me to adjust a little bit."

The Federal Correctional Institution is shown in Dublin, Calif.
Jeff Chiu / AP
/
AP
The Federal Correctional Institution is shown in Dublin, Calif.

Zunkel, the associate director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, said it's important that Chavira and other survivors of assault get released as soon as possible.

"The experts confirm it doesn't matter if you're moved to a different prison, it doesn't matter if they're offered the very best therapy possible, the Bureau of Prisons is a fundamentally unsafe place for a survivor of sexual violence to recover from," Zunkel said.

In Chavira's case, prosecutors did not object to her request for compassionate release.

Prison staffers who sexually abuse inmates are now facing closer scrutiny

The Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Prisons didn't have specific comments about this case.

But Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has been monitoring prosecutions that stem from the abuse at the Dublin prison and she has been trying to stop abuse at other facilities.

"The Department of Justice is committed to rooting out sexual assault within the BOP and continuing to prioritize cases involving sexual abuse of individuals in BOP custody," Monaco said in a written statement this week, after the latest conviction of a former officer at Dublin.

In testimony to the Sentencing Commission and Congress, and in other public statements about sexual assaults by officers, DOJ leaders said they have asked for harsher prison sentences for officers who abuse the people they are supposed to protect. And the new director of the Bureau of Prisons says she is reviewing how wardens are selected and supervised, and are installing more cameras inside the facilities.

For Kevin Ring, who advocates for people in prison and their families, the scandal at the Dublin prison underscores why independent oversight is needed.

"You are not going to clean it up through individual investigations," said Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "You have to change the culture and you have to get rid of the concealment and bring some transparency and sunlight into the prison system."

Ring is throwing his support behind a bill sponsored by Sens. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., and Mike Braun, R-Ind., that would create an ombudsman for the federal prison system and provide for more inspections of those facilities.

Chavira said she's determined to speak out for all the people she met in prison who are still experiencing abuse and poor conditions behind bars.

"There is no help, if you went in in one piece, you're coming back out in a million pieces, because you're beyond broken," she said.

For now, she said she intends to get stronger emotionally and "show everybody, you know, I went through this, and I got out of it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.