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‘I Don’t Even Go to Church Anymore’: Victims Describe Devastation as Judge Sentences Prison Chaplain for Sexual Assault

An image shows the sign on a prison.

The federal prison in Dublin, California, about 35 miles north of San Jose. (Screenshot from Fox KTVU-TV.)

A former Federal Bureau of Prisons chaplain will now be an inmate in the prison system he once served after a federal judge ordered him on Wednesday to serve seven years for sexually assaulting an incarcerated woman.

James Theodore Highhouse, 50, also admitted to lying to investigators about the assaults, which occurred while he was a corrections officer and chaplain at a women’s prison in Dublin, California, about 35 miles north of San Jose, beginning in 2016.

Under standard U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines, Highhouse faced a prison sentence of 24 to 30 months in prison, but the Washington, D.C.-based prosecutor specially assigned to the case asked for an unusually lengthy sentence of 10 years, describing Highhouse’s crimes as “particularly vile.” His lawyers asked for a two-year sentence, describing severe mental problems related to his service as a chaplain with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the conflicts there.

U.S. District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. went with seven years during a hearing Wednesday in his Oakland courtroom, commenting on Highhouse’s “sustained predatory behavior against traumatized and defenseless women in prison,” according to a press release from the U.S.Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Gilliam also ordered Highhouse to be on probation for five years after he leaves prison.

In a letter to the court, Highhouse’s victim said she’s returned to Thailand since testifying before the grand jury that indicted him, and she’s realized “that depression is not the result of weakness, nor is it usually the result of sin.”

“Yes, it thrives in secrecy, but it shrinks in empathy,” the woman wrote. “Together with my God, I can break through the clouds of isolation and stigma of being the victims of sexual assault and abuse can be dissipated and the burden of shame is lifted, so that the miracles of healing can occur.”

Another woman urged severe punishment for Highhouse, writing that she has “no faith in the BOP because they did nothing to help me – even after he was reported, he was allowed to stay there and do this to other women.”

“Highhouse ruined my life – he truly did. I don’t even go to Church anymore because of him. I have no trust in the Church and really, I don’t trust anyone because of what he did,” the woman wrote. “If we didn’t do what he said, then we would get in trouble and we lost our privileges. He used his power as a Chaplain against us knowing that we had needs – we missed our family and he would threaten to take that opportunity to call them from us. He was evil.”

A third woman said Highhouse “took my ability to sleep at night and he took my ability to trust in the Church.”

“I would never go back to Church. I’m constantly on alert. He played on my vulnerability and took advantage of me – I have nightmares,” she wrote. “I am stronger now and I want my voice to be heard in Court – he can never have another ounce of me.”

Highhouse’s sentencing occurred one week prosecutors announced a superseding indictment against the Dublin federal prison’s former warden, Ray J. Garcia, for sexually assaulting three inmates. The cases are part of a broader scandal that includes abuse-of-power investigations into 25 current employees at the prison, called the “Rape Club” by some workers and prisoners, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.

In Highhouse’s case, he pleaded guilty in February to one count of making false statements to federal agents and four counts of sexual abuse of a ward. The charges involve one inmate, but in May, another woman who was imprisoned at Dublin reported Highhouse had sexually abused her in 2017 and 2018. Her description of his conduct matched the first victims, according to prosecutor Fara Gold’s 25-page sentencing memorandum, “to include the defendant complaining about his wife in an effort to gain her trust and sympathy.”

Gold, who is special litigation counsel in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, detailed similar reports from four other women at the Dublin prison and said the standard 24-30 month prison range didn’t account for them, nor did it account for either “the sheer number of times” Highhouse assaulted the charged victim or his “abuse of trust and exploitation of power.”

The 16-page memo from Highhouse’s lawyers, Thomas Carlucci and Jaime Dorenbaum of Foley & Lardner LLP, describes the position as “particularly difficult and impactful” as it involved “ministering to severely wounded, dying, and suicidal soldiers” and left Highhouse depressed and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His mental problems were “exacerbated by his continued and repetitive service and collapsing family life.”

Judge Gilliam allowed Highhouse’s victims to speak at the sentencing via Zoom. Three also wrote letters to the court. The victim whose account led the the only criminal charges filed said she wants to “help stop this hidden and unspoken actions by the Unites States Federal Government employees, which have been swept under the rugs for so long, into the light of truth and justice.”

Highhouse admitted to abusing the woman in the office of the prison chapel, using “Biblical parables and the victim’s religious beliefs to manipulate her and coerce her into submitting to him,” according to prosecutors. As a chaplain beginning in 2016, he led religious services and served as a spiritual guide for inmates while teaching religious-based self-help classes. He also had the power to handcuff prisoners and refer them for discipline.

The woman he victimized had gone to him seeking spiritual guidance and emotional comfort starting in November 2017. She told federal authorities in February 2019 that he’d started abusing her in May 2018, “and his conduct escalated in frequency and severity over time,” prosecutors said.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the DOJ’s civil rights division “is thankful that each of these women were willing to come forward and tell federal authorities what happened to them, even after being treated so egregiously by someone who swore a constitutional oath to ensure they were free from sexual assault in custody.”

“As a chaplain, this defendant exploited an additional abuse of trust to facilitate his crimes,” Clarke said in the press release. “This case demonstrates that the Civil Rights Division will not allow such conduct to occur with impunity.”

U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz said the sentence “sends a clear message to BOP employees that abusing their position of trust will result in serious consequences.”

“The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General is committed to rooting out wrongdoing and abuse by BOP employees and bringing perpetrators to justice,” Horowtiz said in the press release.

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A graduate of the University of Oregon, Meghann worked at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, before moving to California in 2013 to work at the Orange County Register. She spent four years as a litigation reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and one year as a California-based editor and reporter for and associated publications such as The National Law Journal and New York Law Journal before joining Law & Crime News. Meghann has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Bloomberg Law, ABA Journal, The Forward, Los Angeles Business Journal and the Laguna Beach Independent. Her Twitter coverage of federal court hearings in a lawsuit over homelessness in Los Angeles placed 1st in the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California Journalism Awards for Best Use of Social Media by an Independent Journalist in 2021. An article she freelanced for Los Angeles Times Community News about a debate among federal judges regarding the safety of jury trials during COVID also placed 1st in the Orange County Press Club Awards for Best Pandemic News Story in 2021.