There are few things that can unite Republicans and Democrats except for their mutual disdain of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing on July 26 chaired by Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA) who grilled outgoing BOP Director Michael Carvajal about the failings throughout the agency. While the hearing was focused on the corruption and abuses at USP Atlanta, it was a condemnation of an agency in crisis.
Ranking member Ron Johnson (R-WI) was troubled that it took a subpoena to bring Carvajal to testify. Last minute discussions between the subcommittee and the Department of Justice led to withdrawal of the subpoena if Carvajal promised to show up. Insisting that he was there voluntarily, Carvajal said he showed up to answer questions and to assist in the subcommittee’s investigation. However, Carvajal hardly took any responsibility for the shortcomings during his leadership at BOP.
Often frustrated by Carvajal, the subcommittee insisted that Carvajal stop talking about the organization chart in the BOP that prevented important information from reaching his desk. Ossoff read a letter that was sent to the BOP from a chief judge in the Northern District of Georgia about USP Atlanta, “The improper medical response represents gross indifference to preserving life and violates inmates constitutional rights … rats in the building, roaches in the food, poor nutrition, lack of access to hygiene products, lack of access to medical care including prescription medication … a month of 24-hour solitary confinement with only a Bible for entertainment or reading … a week with only a paper jumpsuit and paper blankets for an inmate on suicide watch without mental health treatment or medication.”” Ossoff went on to say, “We’ve got serious problems in this bureaucracy if this was not brought to your attention.” Carvajal insisted that it was a regional director who should have stepped up to address the issues in Atlanta, not him.
Carvajal said a major problem facing the BOP is that it lacks funding to repair and upgrade institutions across the country. “The current backlog of major modernization and repair projects throughout the bureau is approximately $2 billion. However, over the last 10 years, the Bureau has received an average of $95 million annually to address these projects,” Carvajal said. Despite these funding problems it did not excuse the levels of corruption and the constitutional violations that plague the BOP.
Federal Defender Rebecca Shepard (Northern District of Georgia) testified that USP Atlanta’s failure to provide adequate access to their clients held pre-trial was not only a constitutional violation but a waste of taxpayer money. Shepard said, “It is not unusual for the date of the expected meeting [with detainee] to pass and for there to still be no response from staff members. And scheduling a meeting does not mean that the meeting will actually happen because of the facilities chaos and disorganization. When we do get to meet with our clients, it is often after hours of waiting. And while we wait, we are on the clock along with the experts and interpreters that often come along with us. So taxpayers are bearing the cost of USP Atlanta’s incompetence and clients access to the discovery.” In covering the BOP, this is not a problem isolated to Atlanta.
When asked about the number of criminal prosecutions that BOP staff have faced over his tenure, Carvajal insisted that it was not acceptable. Ossoff confronted Carvajal, “The Associated Press reports that more than 100 BOP workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019. Including a warden indicted for sexual abuse and associate Warden charged with murder. Officers taking cash to smuggle weapons and supervisors stealing property. Your response.” The only thing Carvajal could say is that the 100 or so employees were not many compared to the total of 35, 000 employees. Ossoff appeared to be disturbed by the answer.
Regarding more recent stories of staff raping women at facilities at Coleman and Dublin, Carvajal insisted that federal prisons are safe for female staff. Ossoff read from a report as he questioned Carvajal, “2021 the US settled a lawsuit brought by the BOP facility in Florida, that’s Coleman, for women who were raped, assaulted and harassed by male officers. In one particularly harrowing account, an inmate said she was raped every Wednesday for six months at a warehouse where she’d been assigned to work. Is the Bureau of Prisons able to keep female detainees safe from sexual abuse? By assault? Your testimony remains? Yes?” Carvajal replied, “yes.”
Senator Johnson summed up Carvajal’s testimony by saying, “It’s almost willful ignorance. That’s what I find disturbing. It almost appears to be willful ignorance. Don’t want to know what’s happening below me. Don’t want to hear about problems. We’ve got the structure set up. It’s gonna be the regional directors. It’s their problem. People have not been held accountable. Again, I appreciate you coming here. What I don’t appreciate is how difficult it was to get you in here. And I don’t appreciate, again from my standpoint, the obstruction to this committee’s investigation.”
As Carvajal prepares to step down this week, a new director, Colette Peters, is set to take on the challenge of turning the BOP around. It will be a difficult job. For his part Carvajal sent an internal video to BOP personnel over the weekend reflecting on his 30 years of service, “I began my journey in the Bureau on March 21, 1992 as a Correctional Officer at FCI Three Rivers, Texas. I knew nothing about the corrections profession when I joined the BOP, and to be frank, I was simply looking for a job.” With that, Carvajal’s reign is over.
Senator Ossoff concluded the hearing by sending Carvajal out the door with a clear message that things have to change, “Inmates hanging themselves in federal prisons addicted to and high on drugs that flow into the facilities virtually openly and as they hang and suffocate in the custody of the US government. There is no urgent response from members of staff year, after year, after year
“It’s a disconnect and for the answer to be other people deal with that, I got the report I remember, it’s completely unacceptable.
“These issues are deeper than your leadership personally. This is clearly a diseased bureaucracy, and it speaks ill to our national values and our national spirit that we let this persist year after year and decade after decade. And if this country is going to be real about the principles at the core of our founding, and our highest ideals, then it can change at the Bureau of Prisons.
“And it has to happen right now. And with your departure and the arrival of a new director. I hope that moment has arrived.”