She repeatedly reported a prison guard’s sexual abuse. It took years for officials to believe her


Nilda Palacios had nowhere to turn.

It was June 2016 inside the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), the state’s largest women’s prison, and her cellmate had become abusive and violent, she recalled in an interview. Officers had refused her request for a room transfer. Her final hope: begging for help from Tony Ormonde, the sergeant who ran the yard.

“I can do the bed move, but you gotta do something for me,” she remembers him responding.

In the weeks after the transfer, the sergeant began summoning her to his office and other private locations, where he sexually harassed and assaulted her, Palacios said. The abuse continued for months: “I’d cry and ask why I put myself in this situation. I’d leave with disgust and feel used, and I’d hate that I didn’t have the choice to say no.”

Even after she was released, Ormonde kept calling, making sexual comments on the phone and sending her explicit photos.

Palacios reported the abuse after being released. But a prison investigator dismissed her claims and the prison took no action. It would take four years, recordings of Ormonde’s calls and a state investigation for prison officials to conclude her allegations “sustained”, records show.

Ormonde, 48, resigned while under investigation and has not faced sexual abuse charges.

In the years since Palacios first reported the abuse, at least one other woman has come forward saying he had abused her.

The case is the latest to shine a harsh light into the persistent sexual abuse by guards in California women’s prisons. The California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) logged more than 1,400 complaints of staff sexual misconduct from 2021 through 2022 across the state. And in recent years, both of CDCR women’s prisons and the federal women’s prison in California have been mired in significant scandals surrounding rampant officer abuse.

Palacios’ ordeal also highlights the extreme lengths many survivors have to go to have their accounts taken seriously – a dynamic that, advocates say, allows prison staff and the criminal legal system to shield abusers from accountability.

While CDCR faced national scrutiny last year over another CCWF guard accused of sexually abusing more than 22 women, Ormonde’s case has not previously been reported. His files were revealed in a public records request by the Guardian.

The Guardian does not typically name sexual assault survivors, but Palacios, 41, chose to come forward: “I want to put an end to this abuse. I want the cycle to stop.”

‘I was petrified’

Palacios had been incarcerated since age 18. She was given a life sentence after she and an abusive partner, both unhoused at the time, got in a deadly altercation with another man who had also abused her.

By 2016, then 33 years old, she had spent nearly half her life behind bars and was preparing to go to the parole board to plead for her freedom.

She had a strong record after getting a sociology degree and helping women in hospice care, and she was desperate to avoid trouble. One violation could lead to a parole denial and many more years inside. She hoped the transfer away from her cellmate would eliminate potential problems.

The abuse started immediately after the move, she later told investigators: Ormonde first started making sexually explicit remarks, saying she needed a “real man”; the comments escalated to assaults, and eventually Ormonde was coercing her into having sex weekly for at least six months. He refused to use protection, she said, and sometimes he’d physically hurt her.

Palacios said she did not consider reporting the abuse at the time: “I was petrified of getting in trouble and jeopardizing my freedom. I put a mask on and portrayed as if everything was going well. I wanted the board to see I was ready to come home.”

Palacios was well aware that the law, on paper, was on her side. She had served as a Prison Rape Elimination Act (Prea) peer educator, teaching new arrivals that legally there is no such thing as consent between an officer and incarcerated person, and any sexual contact is considered abuse.

But she had also seen what happened to women who did speak out – they were placed in “administrative segregation” during the investigation and some were then accused of rules violations in retaliation, which could lead to their prison terms being extended. Most of their claims were dismissed.

Palacios requested a transfer to another women’s prison, and moved facilities in February 2017. In August of that year, she was granted parole and walked free for the first time in 17 years, at age 34.

Gathering evidence

As soon as she got a phone, Ormonde started calling – sometimes every day, she recalled. She was on parole and scared to turn him down.

She said she first contacted CCWF’s internal affairs sergeant, Dustin Brown, who was responsible for reviewing complaints, in December 2017, four months after being released. The investigation files CDCR released to the Guardian do not make clear how Brown responded, but indicate that Palacios contacted Brown again in November 2019 to report Ormonde’s ongoing harassment.

In January 2020, Palacios told Brown again that Ormonde was still calling her and asking her to meet up. She said she’d changed her phone number to try to avoid him. Her doctor believed she had acquired a sexually transmitted disease from Ormonde, she told the investigator. Prison records again do not make clear how Brown followed up, but Palacios said the investigator suggested “she did not have enough evidence” and that he had “hit a dead end” and had dismissed the case.

“I felt hurt and betrayed,” Palacios recalled, “like I was being pushed aside and judged.”

Palacios tried to move on and began working at a mental health clinic. But in April of 2021, Ormonde called her at work and was coy about how he’d tracked her down, she said: “I was scared. He just kept pestering.”

Palacios detailed the abuse to her therapist, a parole department clinician, and during one of their sessions in July 2021, Ormonde called. The clinician recorded the call. Ormonde recounted specific sexual acts and sent her photos of his genitals, according to investigators’ summary of the call.

The therapist reported the abuse to a parole agent, and agents from CDCR’s office of internal affairs (OIA) began investigating. Unknowingly, Ormonde called Palacios during one of her interviews with OIA, again making graphic remarks and suggesting they have sex again. “Ormonde is hurting people and … it hurts [me] to have to go through this experience to stop [him],” she told investigators.

Five days later, on 14 July 2021, Ormonde was put on paid leave. It had been more than three years since Palacios first reported him to authorities.

A resignation without charges

OIA agents reviewed Ormonde’s message history with Palacios, documented instances of him repeatedly looking up her records, and interviewed an incarcerated woman who corroborated parts of her account.

After Ormonde learned in February 2022 that he would soon be called for an interview with OIA, he told Brown he was planning to resign, Brown later wrote in a memo. Brown said he told Ormonde he was “aware of numerous people who have resigned during an investigation, in lieu of termination”.

On 25 March 2022, after eight months of paid time off, Ormonde resigned and said he would be declining the OIA interview. Two weeks later, OIA concluded Palacios’ allegations were “sustained”, including “sexual misconduct with an inmate / parolee”. But, OIA said, no disciplinary action would be necessary since Ormonde had resigned.

OIA forwarded the case to the local Madera county district attorney, Sally Moreno, recommending felony sexual abuse charges. Moreno, who is prosecuting another former CCWF officer on dozens of sexual abuse charges, said the statute of limitations had passed for the “sex with an inmate” charge OIA recommended for Ormonde. But he was charged with “unlawful communication with an inmate”, a misdemeanor he pleaded no contest to, the DA said.

Ormonde could not be reached for comment. The correctional officer’s union and an attorney who represented him did not respond to repeated inquiries.

CDCR spokesperson Terri Hardy did not comment on the specifics of Ormonde’s case, but said in an email: “CDCR’s investigation of his alleged misconduct was actively ongoing at the time of his resignation.”

Hardy said CDCR has terminated four officers for sexual misconduct in the women’s prisons since 2014 and that an additional 24 have resigned or retired when the department moved to fire them. “The Department investigates all allegations of sexual abuse, staff sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment pursuant to its zero-tolerance policy and as mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). CDCR’s PREA policy also provides guidelines for the prevention, detection, response, investigation, and tracking of allegations against incarcerated people,” she added.

Palacios said she was “enraged” when she learned of his quiet resignation without consequences: “It’s an injustice, a slap on the wrist. He still got protected, and I’m still sitting here with the scars and the memories of what happened.”

Earlier this year, an incarcerated woman filed a CDCR grievance, an internal complaint that precedes a lawsuit, alleging Ormonde abused her from 2017 to 2020, the period after Palacios reported him. The woman wrote in her grievance that she feared reporting him at the time because he was her supervisor in her prison job. She told the Guardian she depended on the meager wages for her daily needs: “He held my life in his hands,” she said.

She said she was hesitant to file a grievance, even years later, but felt a sense of obligation: “I think about how I can make it easier for the people who come after me so they don’t have to go through this. I want people held accountable – not just the perpetrator, but those who turned a blind eye to this misconduct.” Her grievance is still under investigation.

Moreno, the DA, said CDCR’s process of reviewing abuse claims was “cumbersome”, with delays that can make it difficult or impossible to file criminal charges: “In cases like [Palacios’], when a victim’s rights gets trampled like hers were, there’s no real remedy in the criminal justice system. And when we don’t resolve these things expeditiously, we run the risk every single time that there will be new victims.”

Fiona Ma, California’s state treasurer and a former legislator who has advocated for the rights of incarcerated women, said Ormonde should have been fired instead of receiving time to resign, a move she said likely allowed him to keep his benefits. “If you threaten a civil servant’s pension and healthcare for life, people with nefarious intent will think twice about breaking the law. But unfortunately too many of them get away with harassing, victimizing and abusing the women they’re supposed to look after,” she said. “The system should be protecting the victims versus the abusers.”

Ma called for investigations independent from the prison system for abuse claims.

‘A cycle repeating itself’

Speaking up was particularly challenging, Palacios said, because of her history surviving abuse before prison, as is the case with an estimated 60% to 80% of incarcerated women in the US. She suffered repeated sexual assaults as a child, abused by a relative and later a high school teacher, and as a teenager ended up in the violent relationship that led to her imprisonment.

“It was a cycle repeating itself over and over for me,” she said. She has worked hard to disrupt this cycle since her release, joining a nationally acclaimed housing program for formerly incarcerated women who are abuse survivors and opening up about her childhood traumas in media interviews.

But her progress hasn’t always been linear, and the drawn-out process of reporting Ormonde took its toll. Palacios said she was working as a medical assistant last year, but had a severe panic attack on the job when an interaction triggered her, she said, leading her to be hospitalized.

Her therapist helped her realize it was the trauma of prison and Ormonde’s abuse catching up with her: “My mind and my body remember certain things, and I just shut down. It made me paralyzed. I didn’t realize it could have that much damage on me … Sometimes, it eats me alive.” She is now pursuing an animal health and behavior degree in hopes of finding work that would be less mentally taxing than healthcare.

Palacios said she finds some solace in sharing her story for the first time, hoping it empowers other survivors: “It’s a seed for me to plant, and that plant grows and connects to other people. And that begins the healing for me.”