Ex-guard charged with 95 counts of sexual abuse in California women’s prison
A former correctional officer at California’s largest women’s prison has been arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting at least 13 incarcerated people over nearly a decade, prosecutors said on Wednesday.
Gregory Rodriguez, who worked at the Central California Women’s Facility before he retired last year while under investigation, has been charged with 95 counts of sexual abuse, including rape, sodomy, sexual battery and rape under color of authority, the Madera county district attorney’s office said, as well as one drug-related charge. The assaults date back to 2014, but mostly occurred in the last two years, prosecutors said.
Advocates say the charges scratch the surface of systemic misconduct and sexual violence in the women’s prison, and correctional authorities last year said investigators had identified more than 22 victims of Rodriguez’s abuse.
Rodriguez, 54, was being held on $7.8m bail, and it wasn’t clear if he had a lawyer. If convicted on all charges, Rodriguez could be sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.
The DA’s office said the 96 charges include 39 individual sexual assaults. A 48-page complaint alleges that Rodriguez abused people throughout the facilities, including in a substance abuse building, in a clinic, before and after court appearances and in the parole hearing area where incarcerated people appear before commissioners who decide whether to grant their freedom. He’s also accused of bringing heroin into the prison.
Advocates working with survivors said there was a culture of abuse, fear and retaliation in the facility that allowed him to continue his behavior for years.
At a state hearing last month, state senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas noted that Rodriguez was accused of abusing more than 1% of the entire women’s prison population, and that allegations against him date back more than 10 years: “Twenty-two women came forward, and we know when women come forward, there are often women and other victims who don’t.”
She also noted a 2021 inspector general report that found the California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) poorly handled more than 60% of all complaints against staff by incarcerated people.
“If one officer is getting away with this for more than a decade, he is backed up by other officers and by the system, which is not only allowing the culture of sexual violence to continue, but condoning it,” said Colby Lenz, an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a group that has been assisting the survivors. “This is not just one bad apple.”
The women’s prison where Rodriguez worked for 12 years is located in Chowchilla, a small city about 120 miles (190km) south-east of San Francisco. Rodriguez retired in August after being approached about the assaults as part of an internal investigation, CDCR said in December.
The investigation, which found that Rodriguez may have engaged in sexual misconduct against at least 22 incarcerated people, was handed over to the district attorney’s office earlier this year. Rodriguez had worked for CDCR since 1995.
“These allegations are in no way a reflection on the vast majority of correctional officers who act professionally and do their best to make sure prisoners serve their time while remaining safe,” the DA’s office said on Wednesday. “It is our hope that the removal and arrest of this defendant encourages them to continue in their honorable profession upholding the law every day.”
Two unidentified accusers filed lawsuits in December alleging Rodriguez sexually assaulted them at the prison, which holds about 2,100 residents.
Survivors who have spoken up have faced persistent retaliation, said Lenz: “They live in terror both from the trauma of the sexual violence itself and ongoing harassment and retaliation by officers, and they never have a chance to properly grieve or heal. They have to continue to live with with their abusers who have the keys to their cells.”
Advocates have called on the state to expedite the release of survivors.
“They are constantly under threat. It’s horrific and extremely isolating, and there is nowhere safe to turn inside,” said Amika Mota, executive director of the Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition, another group working with the victims.
A CDCR spokesperson on Thursday pointed to the department’s earlier statement on the investigation into Rodriguez, which said “retaliation against anyone who reports these kinds of allegations as well as retaliation against those who cooperate with investigations is not tolerated”.
A 2003 federal law known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act created a “zero-tolerance” policy for the sexual assault of incarcerated people. But California prison officials have still been accused of sexual misconduct in recent years. That includes Israel Trevino, a former correctional officer at the Central California Women’s Facility, who was fired in 2018 after being accused of groping and making sexually harassing comments.
An Associated Press investigation found that a high-ranking federal bureau of prisons official, who formerly worked at a women’s prison in the San Francisco Bay Area, was repeatedly promoted after allegations that he assaulted detainees. Another investigation found a pattern of sexual abuse by correctional officers at the women’s facility. The US government is now facing a backlash for seeking to deport survivors of the abuse who are also noncitizens.
Recent civil cases have also exposed widespread sexual abuse of youth inside juvenile prisons in Los Angeles.
These types of accusations extend beyond California. Former prison officers in Kentucky and New Jersey have recently been charged with sexually abusing or assaulting incarcerated people.