Senator Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, subpoenaed the outgoing Federal Director of the Bureau of Prisons, Michael Carvajal on the deplorable working conditions at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta (USPA).
Director Carvajal, was the Assistant Director for Correctional Programs from 2018 until 2020, with oversight over Correctional Services nationwide, and who has served as Director of the agency since 2020.
In the course of conducting their ten-month bipartisan probe, the Subcommittee secured and reviewed thousands of pages of internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons and interviewed nearly two dozen BOP whistleblowers and other witnesses, including current and former USPA staff, federal judges, defense attorneys, and former senior leaders at the Bureau of Prisons.
“Interviews and records reveal a facility where inmates, including presumptively innocent pretrial detainees, were denied proper nutrition, access to clean drinking water, and hygiene products; lacked access to medical care; endured months of lockdowns with limited or no access to the outdoors or basic services; and had rats and roaches in their food and cells,” said Ossoff. One federal judge described USPA as an embarrassment to the judicial system and noted that incarceration at USPA is like adding another layer of punishment due to the appalling conditions.”
The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary opened in 1902. Over the years, it has housed many notable inmates, including Whitey Bulger, Al Capone, Jimmy Burke, John Gotti, Frank Abagnale, Carlo Ponzi, Bernie Madoff and more. It was renamed the United States Federal Penitentiary in 1930 and it now operates as a medium-security facility.
However, the Subcommittee revealed that gross dysfunction and misconduct at USPA have persisted for at least nine years. A May 2017 audit scored USPA’s Correctional Services Department as “at risk,” finding, among other things, that USPA was improperly storing and failing to log large quantities of seized narcotics; improper prison weapons management; failure to conduct rounds in the Shared Housing Unit (SHU); and failure to maintain awareness of inmate whereabouts.
An October 2017 suicide investigation found that “staff responded with no apparent sense of urgency” to the inmate hanging in his cell, staff logged no rounds on the inmate’s SHU range that day, no evidence pertaining to the suicide was retained, and inmate orderlies in the SHU were “freely passing contraband items to inmates under their cell doors.”
When grilled about these reports, Director Carvajal said he did not know of the abhorrent conditions and called for “appropriate actions” beginning July 2020, including temporarily closing housing units and removing the warden, associate warden, and the entire management team. He called for additional funding to BOP for approximately $2 billion in necessary repairs throughout the bureau. (BOP receives an average of $95 million annually for modernization and repair projects.)
However, Ossoff and the ranking member on the Subcommittee, Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, demanded more accountability from the BOP.
“Respectfully, Director Carvajal, you’re continuing to drive responsibility down the chain of command,” said Ossoff. “You spend two years as the assistant director of correctional services, in your words, responsible for implementing policies and procedures at the national level. You’re then the director of the Bureau of Prisons. And you haven’t familiarized yourself with any of these issues. You were unaware of any issues at USP Atlanta. It’s clearly your most troubled facility. You were ignorant of these problems until the middle of 2021. That’s your testimony today?”
“Senator, things like that, because of the delineation of authority, wouldn’t normally rise to my level. We have a chain of command and procedures that were followed,” Carvajal replied. Ossoff interrupted: “So yes, you were ignorant of this until [the] middle of 2021?”
“It was obvious that there was a breakdown that did not reach my level,” Carvajal said. “And that is why we took the action that we took. There is a delineation of authority, and we trust people — these are senior executive service people at the highest level who have that responsibility. We have very good policies, senator, when they’re followed. The breakdown here is that people consciously chose not to follow the policy.”
The Biden administration previously faced growing pressure to remove Carvajal and was urged to fix the federal prison system after President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to push criminal justice reforms. The Bureau of Prisons is one of the largest Justice Department agencies, budgeted for around 37,500 employees and over 150,000 federal prisoners. It has an annual budget of around $8 billion.