REGIONAL — A day after a U.S. Senator called on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to fire the head of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), another male corrections officer was charged last week with sexually abusing a female inmate at the system’s institution in Dublin.
The charges against John Russell Bellhouse, 39, of Pleasanton, came months after Ray J. Garcia, the former warden at the Federal Correctional Institute (FCI Dublin), and a fellow officer, Ross Klinger, were charged with similar offenses.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, cited Garcia’s case while demanding Garland immediately remove BOP Director Michael Carvajal, who was appointed by former U.S. Attorney General William Barr during the Trump Administration.
“It’s a recurring pattern of misconduct by officials within the Bureau of Prisons who believe they can abuse inmates and break the laws with impunity,” Durbin said during a Dec. 2 floor speech.
U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat who represents the Tri-Valley in Congress and serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said Carvajal should appear before the panel.
“The recent revelations at FCI Dublin, and throughout the Bureau of Prisons system, are cause for concern,” Swalwell said. “I hope the House Judiciary Committee will hear from Director Michael Carvajal soon about what he’s doing to address these abuses.”
Currently, more than 134,000 inmates are confined at 136 BOP facilities, including FCI Dublin. According to the FCI Dublin website, 635 women are housed at the low-security facility, with an additional 116 at an adjacent minimum-security camp.
In a statement outlining the case against Bellhouse, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the former corrections officer was placed on leave in March. The complaint filed against him alleges Bellhouse expressed interest in an inmate in 2020, called her “girlfriend,” gave her earrings and allowed her to use an office phone, a violation of the rules.
Bellhouse, the prison’s Safety Administrator who supervised and had disciplinary authority over inmates, started with sexual touching and twice engaged in oral sex with the inmate, including one encounter in the facility’s safety office. Prosecutors allege that during the encounter, another inmate acted as a lookout.
Sexual relationships between inmates and correctional officers are illegal.
Arrested Thursday (Dec. 2), Bellhouse made his initial court appearance Friday in federal court in Oakland. He is scheduled to return to court Jan. 10.
If convicted of one count of sexual abuse of an inmate, Bellhouse faces up to 15 years in prison, three years on supervised release and a $250,000 fine.
In September, federal prosecutors similarly charged Garcia, 54, of Merced with sexual abuse of a ward. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Garcia, who had been promoted to warden, engaged in multiple sexual encounters with at least one inmate at FCI Dublin while he previously served as associate warden.
In July, prosecutors charged Klinger, 36, of Riverside with repeatedly engaging in sexual intercourse with two FCI Dublin inmates in 2020. Klinger was working in a Southern California federal prison when he was charged.
Last month, AP published an investigation that reported that more than 100 federal prison workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since 2019. The article cited Garcia’s case along with others in the system, including guards taking cash to smuggle drugs and weapons, an associate warden accused of murder and supervisors stealing property.
In his speech, Durbin cited violent incidents in the BOP system, including a stabbing attack on an inmate at FCI Fort Dix, a New Jersey facility run by the warden who formerly ran the federal jail in New York where financier Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
Durbin said top BOP leadership, including Carvajal, had failed to implement reforms included in the First Step Act, passed three years ago to improve the system.
“Since day one, Director Carvajal has shown no intention of reforming the institution,” Durbin said. “For years, the Bureau of Prisons has been plagued by corruption, chronic understaffing, and misconduct by high-ranking officials. In the nearly two years since Director Carvajal took control of the Bureau, he has failed to address the mounting crises in our nation’s federal prison system. It is far past time for new, reform-minded leadership in the Bureau of Prisons.”