FCI Dublin, the now-shuttered women’s prison, is the subject of several lawsuits by current and former residents. But documents in one case are being withheld from the press and public. Photo by Jesstess87 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

FCI Dublin was shrouded in secrecy — now a case against it is suffering the same fate

When you think about some of the biggest court cases in recent memory — New York v. Trump, U.S. v. Hunter Biden — you likely recall the press coverage you read, heard, or saw. The press relies on access to court hearings and documents to do their reporting. In turn, the public relies on the press to report on those cases to stay informed on the developments and outcomes.

So when reporters’ access to hearings and documents is curtailed, the public suffers.

That was the situation in April, when Public Justice learned that numerous motions to seal records in a hugely consequential lawsuit about the Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin (known as “FCI Dublin”) were granted by a federal district court. Most of the motions to seal were filed by the Bureau of Prisons, and even some of the motions to seal were under seal.

We still don’t know what warrants this level of secrecy. Brought by eight former residents of FCI Dublin, the case challenges the conditions at the prison, which is now notorious for the unchecked sexual assault by staff on residents. A string of lawsuits against the women’s prison have shed light on the widespread, systemic corruption and lack of oversight that allowed this abuse to continue for decades. Several staff members, including the former warden and former chaplain, have been convicted of sexual abuse.

Secrecy surrounding the case escalated when the Bureau of Prisons abruptly announced it would shut down the prison altogether, and transferred the more than 600 residents to facilities across the country. Amidst intense scrutiny following the closure announcement, the court held several closed hearings, hiding critical information about the closure from the press and public.

Earlier this week, the ACLU of Northern California and Public Justice filed a motion to unseal the court records that are still under seal. The groups represent FAC, freelance journalist Victoria Law, the Appeal, and the ACLU of Northern California in the motion.

Public interest in this case is high, not least for the families of the people who were once incarcerated there and have been moved as far away as Minnesota and Florida. Michael Balsamo of the Associated Press, who was part of a duo of reporters who first uncovered the abuse, told KTVU in March: “We’re not aware of the scale of sexual abuse anywhere else in the federal prison system that there is a FCI Dublin. The pure amount of allegations of sexual misconduct abuse at FCI Dublin has been astonishing.”

A democracy requires access to information to hold the government accountable. The excessive secrecy surrounding the FCI Dublin case must end.

This decades-long misconduct and coverup demonstrates the government can’t effectively police itself, which is why it’s critical the press and public have as much access to the proceedings as possible.