One prison guard, 96 abuse charges: women say ‘serial rapist’ targeted them over a decade
"On 15 May 2022, Gregory Rodriguez, a guard at the Central California Women’s Facility, ordered a 30-year-old woman in his custody to come to a hearing room at the prison.
He told her there were no cameras in the room, prison investigators allege, and gave her a choice: she could have sex with him or get a write-up for a rules violation, risking a lengthened prison term, revoked privileges and solitary confinement.
He proceeded to rape her, the investigators say, and would go on to assault her on at least five more occasions.
Jane Doe is one of more than 22 women Rodriguez is suspected of sexually harassing, assaulting and raping at CCWF over the span of nearly a decade, prison officials say. The former officer, who has pleaded not guilty to 96 sexual abuse charges, is now in jail awaiting trial.
The case has raised an urgent question: how could one officer be accused of abusing so many women, over so many years, without getting caught?
An analysis of court records, misconduct data, as well as interviews with five women who spoke to the Guardian about Rodriguez’s abuse paint a picture of a system in which the most vulnerable women in the California department of corrections (CDCR) are routinely preyed upon – often lured with promises of basic supplies and small privileges and then threatened into silence.
When women have reported abuse, they have at times faced severe consequences, in some cases leading to longer prison terms and further exposure to their assailants. Some officers have protected their colleagues and facilitated their attacks.
CCWF investigated a report of Rodriguez’s abuse as early as 2014, testimony from a prison investigator and a victim reveals, but instead of terminating him, it punished the victim. Court records suggest he would go on to commit dozens of additional alleged sexual assaults.
Rodriguez’s abusive conduct appears to extend beyond the allegations outlined by the prison’s investigators and in the resulting criminal case. The Guardian interviewed one woman who said she was assaulted by Rodriguez but never reported it out of fear of retaliation. Advocates say they believe there are more victims.
Abuse of incarcerated women is a systemic problem across the United States – government surveys have estimated that more than 3,500 women are sexually abused by prison and jail staff each year, and that federal employees have abused women in at least two-thirds of federal women’s prisons.
Prosecution is rare: since 2014, people incarcerated in California’s women’s prisons have filed hundreds of complaints of sexual abuse by staff, but Rodriguez is one of only four officers from those institutions confirmed by the state to have faced charges, internal records reveal.
“You can’t protect yourself in here,” Selina*, one of Rodriguez’s alleged victims, said from inside prison. “The women here are so vulnerable and so alone, and he clearly thought he was above the law.”
‘No one will believe you’
Gregory Rodriguez, now 55, appears to have spent most of his career at CDCR. He started with the department in 1995 at age 27, training for two months before he was assigned to men’s prisons.
In 2010, he moved to CCWF, an overcrowded women’s facility with 2,400 residents, in Chowchilla, a remote rural town hours away from the state’s major metro areas.
The first alleged incident documented in court files occurred in April 2014, roughly four years after he started at CCWF, although it would take nearly a decade for details to emerge publicly. Jamie Torres, a CDCR internal affairs special agent who interviewed the victim in October 2022, recently testified in court that Rodriguez had “escorted” a woman “behind the work exchange” – a checkpoint that women pass through on their way to prison jobs – and then “she had sex with him”. By law, an officer cannot have a consensual relationship with an incarcerated person, and any sexual contact is considered abuse.
Rodriguez continued to assault the woman through September 2014 – at times in a substance abuse treatment building as well as in clinics, Torres said; Rodriguez allegedly told her she was his “girlfriend” and gave her underwear, cosmetics, jewelry and alcohol. “She felt she was doing what she felt she had to,” the investigator said.
A pattern emerged in Rodriguez’s tactics over time, records and internal investigators’ testimony indicate. Multiple women allege he first verbally harassed them, commenting on their breasts, tattoos, hair, and gym workouts and making explicitly sexual remarks. Most said he isolated them in areas without cameras, typically under false pretenses, claiming they were needed for appointments or cleaning services. He then asked for sex in exchange for items such as gum or tobacco, while also threatening to write them up or “make prison very difficult” if they told anyone or didn’t comply.
“No one would believe [you],” one woman said he told her.
The majority of rapes later alleged in the criminal case occurred in 2021 and 2022 in the board of parole hearings (BPH) area, where incarcerated residents have confidential legal visits or appear before commissioners to plead for their freedom.
One woman thought she was going to BPH for a meeting about an early release program, but she was met by Rodriguez, who raped her, internal investigators say.Another believed she was meeting the head of the prison there. Rodriguez allegedly offered extra phone time to two women, including one who had just lost a loved one and took the opportunity to talk to her family; she said he began assaulting her while she was still crying after the call.
One woman said she confided in Rodriguez about her struggles with substance use, and he coerced her into sex by offering to get her suboxone, medication to treat addiction. She complied, but never got the prescription, and instead he gave her heroin, she reported.
She overdosed and was hospitalized.
‘Interrogated’ and sent to solitary
CCWF looked into Rodriguez as early as 2014, an investigator revealed in the later criminal case. But the investigator’s testimony suggests that the prison’s first documented investigation failed his victim.
Each California prison has an investigative services unit (ISU), made up of officers who review claims of staff misconduct and investigate incarcerated people accused of violations such as bringing in contraband.
In 2014, CCWF conducted an “administrative investigation” into reports of “overfamiliarity and a sexual relation” between Rodriguez and an incarcerated woman, the investigator testified in court.
That woman, Valerie*, told the Guardian a staff member, not her, had reported Rodriguez to CCWF. In the months leading up to the investigation, Valerie said, she had been groomed, coerced and then repeatedly assaulted. She had been terrified to come forward, she said, hurt that she had initially trusted him and scared by his threats after he started assaulting her.
She wanted the assaults to stop, she said, but was desperate to avoid repercussions: “At that time, I felt I was responsible for all of the abuse … I just felt trapped because I couldn’t talk to anybody.”
When ISU eventually brought her in for questioning, Valerie said, “they interrogated me, as if I was the one to be blamed”.
Officers implied Valerie had behaved inappropriately and “manipulated” Rodriguez, she recalled. She said she had wanted to tell investigators what she’d endured, but that their threats and intimidating questions had made it clear they did not see her as a victim, so she told them nothing had happened, hoping she wouldn’t face further consequences.
While the investigation continued, she was sent to solitary confinement, known as the security housing unit (SHU), she said, where she recalled being stuck for several months. She received no mental health care while in the SHU, other than brief check-ins from a clinician who went cell-to-cell to “make sure we’re not suicidal”, she said. During this time, she was no longer allowed to have face-to-face visits, so was only able to see her mother behind glass.
She said she had tried to confide in a male prison psychologist, alluding to the sexual abuse, but that he had quickly made her uncomfortable, asking her questions about masturbation, and, at the session’s end, hugging her. She further shut down: “I was like: I don’t want to do this any more.”
She eventually learned CDCR would be transferring her to another prison farther from her family, who had themselves relocated to be closer to CCWF: “I was dealing with that guilt, like I messed up again.” Rodriguez remained at the prison. Terri Hardy, a CDCR spokesperson, said in an email that in November 2014, the prison “received information that indicated there was possible sexual misconduct” by Rodriguez and “immediately” opened an investigation, but “the case was closed due to insufficient evidence”.
An embattled warden
Colby Lenz, an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, who is working with several of Rodriguez’s alleged victims, said that over the years, his behavior had become so widely known that some women developed a “buddy system” to try to avoid being alone with him.
Selina told the Guardian that after he groped her so blatantly and suddenly, “I looked at him and said, ‘You’ve done this before. This is easy for you.’” When she returned to her housing unit in hysterics, two women appeared unfazed: “They said, ‘That’s just him.’ The officers hide everything.”
Records and interviews with several survivors of abuse in CDCR reveal most felt unable to speak out.
Harassment and assault by guards is widespread and normalized, women said, noting these abuses occur across institutions. In past years, there have been major scandals at the other CDCR women’s prison near Los Angeles, the federal institution in the Bay Area and LA youth jails. Women know that filing a complaint is extremely risky and unlikely to result in the prison taking action, as their cases are often difficult to prove, especially when there is no physical evidence or witnesses. As Rodriguez repeatedly reminded them: who would believe them?
At CCWF, some of Rodriguez’s victims said, other guards at times appeared suspicious of Rodriguez but did not intervene. Jane Doe, who is part of the criminal case, alleged that after Rodriguez raped her, three officers subsequently questioned her about her whereabouts during the incident. She told them she’d had an attorney video visit, as Rodriguez had ordered her to say, and although the officers knew this was untrue and one of them appeared surprised, they didn’t report the incident. At a later medical appointment, she said, she requested STD and pregnancy testing, but was told she’d have to admit to engaging in “risky behavior” and face discipline.
Some guards, the women said, actively helped Rodriguez secure time with prisoners alone, intimidated victims, or approached victims themselves.
Valerie said at least four officers had started harassing and propositioning her after Rodriguez started assaulting her.
Another woman who has sued Rodriguez for sexual assault said that after she had spoken to investigators, two officers who she believed were friends with Rodriguez accosted her on her way to church, ripped up her paperwork and put her in handcuffs without cause. She stopped going to church.
The prison’s leadership has also faced scrutiny for facilitating Rodriguez’s behavior. Mike Pallares, the warden at CCWF during the reported rapes, “failed to protect” women from a “serial rapist”, Robert Chalfant, an attorney for seven women, has alleged in filings. Chalfant’s lawsuits say Pallares had received complaints about Rodriguez prior to many of the 2022 assaults, but did not take action nor did he launch internal affairs investigations.
On the contrary, according to Chalfant, the warden approved Rodriguez’s overtime requests to work at BPH, where he allegedly committed the rapes.
In a December statement, after two women filed lawsuits, Pallares said Rodriguez “shamefully hid behind his badge and used it to victimize a vulnerable population”. But he did not acknowledge that he himself was twice sued by female colleagues for sexual misconduct. A CCWF administrative worker has alleged Pallares coerced her into sex in 2015, in a lawsuit that was recently dismissed. And a former female warden of the prison separately alleged that Pallares made unwanted advances against her when she was his boss in a lawsuit that is ongoing.
Tremaine Carroll, another woman who says Rodriguez abused her, has also accused Pallares of sexually assaulting her, in official complaints and a lawsuit. Carroll, who is a trans woman, has said Pallares coerced her by threatening to send her back to men’s prisons: “The threat of being sent back to men’s prisons is worse than having a gun pointed at me.”
Pallares and his attorneys did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyers argued in filings that there was no reason for him to believe the overtime was “nefarious” and that the women’s complaints have failed to prove that the warden was “on notice” that Rodriguez posed a “substantial risk of serious harm”. The state justice department, which is representing Pallares in several civil cases, declined to comment.
‘Can’t guarantee protection’
It’s unclear what exactly prompted the recent internal inquiry that ultimately resulted in Rodriguez’s prosecution, but CDCR said in a press release in December 2022 that the department and the CCWF ISU had begun investigating the guard in July 2022, “immediately” after “discovering information that suggested sexual misconduct”. The release said he “retired” in August of 2022 after he was approached by investigators.
The criminal records indicate that women increasingly spoke to investigators last fall.
For some of the women, speaking up came at a heavy cost. Latasha Brown, who says Rodriguez assaulted her in the BPH area, said that after she had spoken to a civil attorney investigating Rodriguez, a process separate from the institution’s investigation, officers placed her in segregation, a form of solitary confinement. She said they had forced her to do multiple strip searches for no discernible reason, in a manner that felt cruel and retaliatory: “I’m the alleged victim and you’re treating me like a perpetrator. I just wanted my humanity recognized.”
While in isolation, cut off from loved ones and at one point without a utensil to eat with, she struggled with suicidal thoughts: “I wanted to check out. I was freezing and eating meals with my fingers and I didn’t want to live through that.” CDCR eventually transferred her to another institution, which she believed was for her safety, but again, she was placed in solitary: “I felt victimized all over again. Being in segregation was more traumatic than what I’d been through.”
Carroll said she too had been placed in segregation after reporting abuse: “That is retaliatory, and that is why victims don’t come forward.”
Rodriguez’s lawyer, Roger Wilson, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But he argued in a July 2023 hearing about the case that there were “no documented threats” made by Rodriguez, noting the former prison guard did not actually issue rules violations against the women. Wilson also claimed that for some women, there was “no evidence of any force [or] duress”, suggesting they were “bargaining” and “negotiating” with Rodriguez for contraband he offered. For one woman, he claimed “there was consent”. The lawyer further argued there was no evidence beyond the woman’s claims of Rodriguez bringing in heroin.
Wilson argued for Rodriguez’s pretrial release, saying he had been living with and caring for his elderly mother and had a close relationship with his 19-year-old daughter. He noted Rodriguez had no criminal record and that he was still collecting his pension. A judge declined to free him and set the case for trial, which is expected next year.
CDCR declined multiple interview requests over several weeks and a spokesperson for Governor Gavin Newsom declined to comment. Jennifer Benavidez, CDCR’s deputy director of facility operations in the division of adult institutions, said in an email that when women report abuse, they are placed in “administrative segregation” for their protection “only when no other housing alternatives are available”, and said the “victim will continue to receive all programs and privileges” while in isolation. She said an accused employee would have no contact with incarcerated people during the investigation.
While CDCR says it identified “more than 22 potential victims” of Rodriguez, the charges were filed on behalf of only 13 women. The Madera county district attorney, Sally Moreno, who is prosecuting the case, said in an interview that she had filed charges she could prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” and also noted some claims of misconduct might not have been criminal.
She acknowledged there were probably others besides Rodriguez who had abused women in the prison, but had not faced charges, because victims had never reported them or CDCR did not bring cases to her: “Anytime you’ve got women in this super compromised position where there are these formal and informal power structures, they’re going to be taken advantage of.”
Why was Rodriguez caught? “It takes one person to speak the truth and that gives other people courage,” said Moreno, noting that when one woman reports abuse and does not face retaliation, it can snowball. Investigators also have suggested that the case is supported by video corroboration, including footage that appeared to show Rodriguez touching himself while waiting for one woman to approach, then the two of them entering a closet-size room, and another video showing him adjusting his zipper as he exited a room with a different woman.
Moreno said she hoped the case would inspire more women to come forward, but understood why survivors may still be hesitant: “There is this secrecy in our prisons. I would never tell a woman I can 100% guarantee that you’ll be protected, because we just can’t do that. So they do take risks when they report this.”
In January, a month after CDCR announced it had referred Rodriguez to prosecutors, the department reassigned Pallares to an associate warden position in a different prison; a CDCR spokesperson told the Sacramento Bee at the time: “We thank him for his time and work at the institution.”
Nancy Skinner, a state senator who called a hearing on CDCR sexual violence, said she was concerned that Pallares was transferred after being accused of sexual misconduct: “I don’t think he should have been allowed to move on. There should have been more consequences.”
*Selina and Valerie are pseudonyms to protect their anonymity as they remain incarcerated and continue to fear retaliation"