She reported being abused by US prison guards. Now she faces deportation | California

In early 2022, Cristal came forward about the horrific sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of multiple guards at the federal prison in Dublin, California – one of dozens of victims to speak up about misconduct.

Today, rather than being reunited with her family after completing her sentence, she’s in immigration detention, awaiting deportation to Mexico – a country she left as a baby.

“My whole world dropped. I thought I was finally going to get to go home and hug my kids,” Cristal, 31, said about the day she was detained by agents of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice). “It hurts me, because I was supposed to be protected. I trusted them and told them what I went through and this is how they treat me?”

Cristal’s nightmare is not an anomaly, but a common experience across the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), east of San Francisco. Indictments against five officers show that guards systematically victimized women in their custody, intimidated them into silence, lied to cover up crimes and often targeted noncitizens. A coalition of legal advocates says that at least 26 of those survivors are now facing deportation, including several who directly testified in court. At least eight victims have already been deported.

“These are people who have been abused by federal employees in some of the most horrific ways one could be harmed in prison,” said Susan Beaty, supervising attorney with the Oakland-based non-profit Centro Legal de la Raza, who is representing Cristal and other survivors. “They need and deserve to return to their families and heal from the trauma they’ve endured at the hands of the government. Instead, the government is continuing to punish them.” (The Guardian is identifying Cristal by her middle name due to her ongoing retaliation concerns.)

‘They get away with it’

Cristal was 15 months old when her mother brought her to California, only returning to Mexico once for vacation. She endured a lifetime of violence, suffering years of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a stepfather, according to her immigration files, and repeatedly facing domestic abuse as an adult.

Despite the ongoing trauma, she worked to become a certified dental assistant: “As a single mother, it was hard to provide for my daughters, but I wanted to do anything and everything I could for my kids,” Cristal said.

Cristal was arrested in 2018 for allegedly importing drugs and pleaded guilty to a single offense, her first conviction. Although she is a longtime legal permanent resident, and previously obtained a special visa for victims of abuse, the felony case put her at risk of deportation.

These are people who have been abused by federal employees in some of the most horrific ways one could be harmed in prison

Susan Beaty

When Cristal arrived at FCI Dublin in September 2019, guards put her to work as a cook. She was grateful for the job – it gave her just enough wages to buy hygiene products, she said. But almost immediately, an officer overseeing the kitchen began harassing her, she said, pressuring her to go to the backroom where there were no cameras; threatening to expose himself; rubbing and grabbing her from behind; demanding she “bend over”; and calling her demeaning names when she refused.

At least three other officers across the prison also abused her over three years, she said in a legal claim against the Bureau of Prisons (BoP). Cristal’s lawyers say she repeatedly saw FCI Dublin staff assault and rape other women. One guard threw her against a wall after he found out she’d witnessed him abusing another detainee, she said. Another guard allegedly locked her and her bunkmate in their cell and would not let them out until the bunkmate showed him her breasts.

“They harm you, thinking they can get away with it,” she said of the guards.

‘Targeted victims’

Cristal said she was eventually contacted by a BoP investigator looking into abuse claims at the facility, and while terrified to speak up, she told him what she’d endured. She later also spoke to the FBI.

She became one of many women who reported abuse at Dublin, an institution that, according to an Associated Press investigation last year, was widely known by staff and residents as “the rape club” due to its culture of rampant sexual violence.

In December, a jury convicted Ray Garcia, the FCI Dublin warden at the time of Cristal’s incarceration, of sexually abusing three incarcerated women; forcing women to undress and takingtheir photos; and lying to the FBI. Before he was arrested, Garcia had led trainings on the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act and oversaw audits meant to prevent sexual violence. Three other officers, including one named as an abuser in Cristal’s complaint, have pleaded guilty to similar crimes. A fourth is awaiting trial. Three officers identified in Cristal’s claim have not faced charges.

The Federal Correctional Institution is shown in Dublin, California.Pin
The Federal Correctional Institution is shown in Dublin, California. Photograph: Ben Margot/AP

The criminal cases scratch the surface of the daily misconduct in Dublin, which has decades of documented sexual abuse cases, said Beaty. The advocacy coalition has interviewed more than 140 survivors of abuse and retaliation at the facility, they said.

“It’s extremely clear that staff systematically targeted the most vulnerable people for abuse, including noncitizens who they believed would be deported,” said Beaty.

One of their undocumented clients was repeatedly molested by a guard who told the woman he’d seen her file, Beaty recalled. “I know you’re going to Mexico,” the guard reportedly told the client. The woman, still in BoP custody, was too scared to report the abuse, Beaty said: “She told me: ‘It’s not a question of if they will retaliate against me, it’s a question of when and how.’”

“They target the ones who they assume won’t be able to speak up or press charges,” added Cristal.

When women tried to resist, guards fiercely retaliated, Cristal said. After her cellmate stopped having sex with one guard, he placed Cristal in solitary confinement for a month and fired her from her kitchen job, she said. Without wages from her kitchen job, she couldn’t buy essentials or snacks, she said; some days she’d go without food. When she returned from solitary, all her belongings had been trashed, including photos of her children, she said: “That hurt me the most, because I couldn’t replace them.”

They target the ones who they assume won’t be able to speak up or press charges


After she spoke to investigators, staff called her a “snitch” and harassed her further, she said.

‘I just want to hold my daughter’

As Cristal’s sentence was ending last year, she prepared for her return home to San Bernardino county, in southern California.

A probation officer visited her mother’s home in anticipation of Cristal’s release. Cristal’s mother told the officer she was terrified Ice could deport her daughter: “I said I wouldn’t be able to survive that,” she recalled. But after the inspection, she was hopeful, telling Cristal’s kids, ages six and 12, that their mom was returning.

On 25 November inside Dublin, BoP called Cristal’s name for release: “It’s the day everybody fantasizes about. I was happy and excited – after five years being incarcerated to finally know your freedom is there, I was ready.”

As she exited, an Ice officer was waiting for her with chains.

“I thought I was going to hold my daughter in my arms and be close to her, and now she’s even farther away,” said Cristal’s mother, adding that probation arrived to her home days later to check on Cristal, unaware Ice had taken her: “I wish President Biden could see the look on my granddaughter’s face when her mom didn’t come home. Her daughters deserve more than just a few minutes with her in a visiting room. They deserve a lifetime with their mom.”

An unused high security housing unit at Northwest Ice Processing Center.Pin
An unused high security housing unit at Northwest Ice Processing Center. Cristal is currently being held in an Ice facility in Tacoma, Washington. Photograph: Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

Centro Legal and the other groups representing victims have demanded Ice release detained survivors and witnesses of Dublin sexual abuse, halt their deportation cases and allow them to seek permanent relief from removal.

The Dublin scandal, advocates argued, illustrated how the Biden administration was continuing some of the cruel practices of Donald Trump’s deportation regime. Although Joe Biden has said he would prioritize removing people considered a “threat”, in practice the policies have continued to sweep up people with old criminal records who have served their time, including refugees, longtime green card holders, exonerated individuals, people at risk of severe violence if sent to their birth countries, and victims of abuse.

One former Dublin victim in her 40s, who has already been deported, said she was struggling to get by in Mexico, where she was battling severe anxiety and depression and lived in fear her abuser, a former guard, could track her down: “I feel helpless. This system sees us incarcerated people and survivors as numbers. And we mean even less to them, because we’re not citizens.”

BoP declined to comment on Cristal’s case and whether the guards she named remained at FCI. Cristal’s claim identifies the officers by their last names, which is the only information her lawyers have been able to obtain; a spokesperson declined to share their full names with the Guardian and said BoP could not check their employment status without that information.

Her daughters deserve more than just a few minutes with her in a visiting room. They deserve a lifetime with their mom

Cristal’s mother

“We continue to fully support criminal investigations and prosecutions that hold staff accountable for sexual misconduct with incarcerated persons. We believe that holding staff accountable, to the fullest extent of the law, will serve as a deterrent against future misconduct by staff,” spokesperson Donald Murphy said in an email, adding that the agency maintains a “zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse”. The BoP has taken assertive action at FCI Dublin to make changes regarding safety and communication. While this work is not complete, it is a serious and ongoing effort.”

A spokesman for the US attorney’s office, which is prosecuting abuse cases, said the department had obtained immigration relief for FCI victims, but declined to say for how many or whether the agency was considering protection for Cristal or additional charges based on her claims.

Ice spokesperson Denise Hauser declined to comment on Cristal’s immigration case and ongoing deportation proceedings against FCI victims, saying in an email that Ice remains “focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that protects the homeland through the arrest and removal of those who undermine the safety of our communities and the integrity of our immigration laws”. She said removal operations “target public safety threats, such as convicted criminal noncitizens and gang members, who have violated our nation’s immigration laws”.

‘Constant nightmares’

In Ice detention in Washington state, more than 1,100 miles away from her daughters, Cristal said she has no counseling and little to do all day besides 1 hour of recreation. Her thoughts race when she lies in bed, she said.

After surviving childhood abuse, “I learned how to numb those thoughts and feelings,” she said. “But going into prison, and it happening again, it awoke something in my brain and really damaged me more than I was already damaged.” She now has constant nightmares of the abuse.

“It hurts. I just wish they could see me as a human being. I deserve a chance to be with my kids.”

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