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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Federal Prisons Director angers senators by shifting blame for agency failures

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WASHINGTON — With just days left in office, the controversial director of the federal prison system faced a two-pronged attack on Tuesday for refusing to take responsibility for a culture of corruption and misconduct that has plagued his agency for years.

Bureau of Prisons director Michael Carvajal, who testified before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation, insisted he was shielded from trouble by his subordinates — though he was copied on emails and some issues detailed in reports. that were generated by the Senate Bureau. headquarters.

Carvajal, who resigned in January and will be replaced next week by Oregon State Prison Director Colette Peters, blamed the size and structure of the Bureau of Prisons for its ignorance of issues such as suicides, sexual abuse and the free movement of prisoners. . drugs, weapons and other contraband that has rocked some of the agency’s 122 facilities.

Carvajal said several times that the Bureau of Prisons, the largest part of the Justice Department with a budget of more than $8 billion, was a “very large and complex organization” and that there was “no way” for him to to know everything that was going on. On.

Carvajal’s attempts to shirk responsibility for his leadership failure did not go down well with the subcommittee chairman, Senator Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., nor with the highest-ranking member, Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Prisons were boosted in part by the Associated Press coverage that exposed numerous crises at the agency.

Making the senators worse, Carvajal initially refused to testify, but did so only after the subcommittee subpoenaed him on July 14 — and then, upon arriving at the hearing, claimed he was there voluntarily. Ossoff withdrew the subpoena immediately before Carvajal’s testimony, only after the warden appeared in court.

“It’s almost willful ignorance, and I find that disturbing,” Johnson said of Carvajal’s reluctance to admit his mistakes. “I don’t want to know what’s going on underneath me. I don’t want to hear about rape. I don’t want to hear about suicides.”

Ossoff added: “It’s a shame. And to be the answer, other people deal with that. I got the report. I don’t remember. It’s completely unacceptable.”

After that, Carvajal walked away from reporters who wanted to talk to him about his testimony. The director, who has declined nearly all interview requests since taking office in 2020, ducked into a freight elevator with assistants before descending a stairwell when they realized journalists had been following them.

Tuesday’s hearing, one of many promised by the subcommittee, focused on years of misconduct and abuse at an Atlanta federal prison, but the issues revealed there speak to bigger systemic problems in the Bureau of Prisons, such as severe staff shortages, poor health care and barely edible food.

Atlanta Prison, a 120-year-old remnant in Ossoff’s home state, once housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals, including mobster Al Capone, James “Whitey” Bulger, and Carlo Ponzi, the namesake of the “Ponzi scheme.” “. Today it is a crumbling, medium-sized facility – no longer a prison in the true sense of the word – with about 900 male inmates, including those awaiting trial.

Tuesday’s hearing, which included testimony from Atlanta whistleblowers ahead of Carvajal’s questioning, took place amid an AP investigation that has revealed widespread issues within the agency, including criminal employees, escaping inmates, a women’s prison the staff and inmates is known as the “rape club” because of rampant sexual abuse of staff and a critical lack of staff that has hampered emergency responses.

Witnesses described what they believed was known as the “Atlanta Way” – a culture that allowed prison misconduct to continue for years.

Carvajal told the commission that he only learned of the prison’s problems last year and took immediate action, reducing the prison population and firing dozens of managers. Despite that, the witnesses said, the facility is still in serious trouble.

Ossoff said evidence obtained by the subcommittee’s investigators shows that the agency’s leadership was aware of the issues in Atlanta as early as 2014. Carvajal has been part of the senior management of the agency since 2013.

Erika Ramirez, the former Atlanta Prison chief psychologist, said she was transferred to another federal prison in retaliation after raising concerns about poor conditions and a spate of inmate suicides. Ramirez said she had warned the prison director, other senior circles and agency headquarters to no avail.

Ramirez said contraband was so common that she confiscated a smuggled microwave oven from one inmate, only to find it a few days later in another inmate’s cell. She said she confirmed it was the same device when she saw the serial number, she said.

Ramirez said the mold-strewn prison had such shoddy infrastructure, elevators were constantly breaking and the sewers overflowed into the recreation yard during rainstorms, sometimes leaving a foot of human waste behind.

Terri Whitehead, an administrator who left prison last year, testified that there were so many rats in the hospitality industry that employees would leave the prison doors wide open to the outside for stray cats to look after them — an approach she believes would increase the security of the community. the prison.

Ossoff told the AP after the hearing that Carvajal’s testimony was “at times believable” and that the director’s claims that he was unaware of the problems in Atlanta prison until about a year ago “put credibility under pressure.” .

In one of the most tense moments of the hearing, Ossoff pressured Carvajal for rampant sexual abuse at FCI Dublin, a federal women’s prison in the Bay Area of ​​California known to staff and inmates as the “rape club.” Among the Dublin employees charged so far is the former warden of the prison.

“Is the Bureau of Prisons able to protect female inmates from sexual abuse by staff?” asked Ossoff. “Yes or no?”

“Yes, we are,” Carvajal retorted. “In those cases where things happen, we hold people accountable appropriately.”

“You are the warden at a time when one of your prisons is known to the staff and inmates as a ‘rape club,'” Ossoff said, silencing and staring out of Carvajal.

Carvajal pushed for a response and said the matter is under investigation.

After that, Ossoff took issue with Carvajal’s claims that the Bureau of Prisons can keep female inmates — or other inmates — safe.

“It is demonstrably false that female inmates in Bureau of Prisons custody are safe,” Ossoff told the AP. “It is demonstrably incorrect. And it is demonstrably incorrect that all inmates can rely on the quality of care and medical care in multiple BOP facilities.”

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