Horrible conditions at a federal prison in Atlanta, and a cover-up

WASHINGTON — Rampant drug abuse, substandard medical and mental health care, rampant violence and appalling sanitary conditions abound at a federal prison in Atlanta, a new congressional investigation into the Federal Bureau of Prisons has found.

The problems facing the medium-security prison, which holds about 1,400 people, are so notorious within the federal government that its culture of indifference and mismanagement has been ironically dubbed “The Atlanta Way” among bureau employees. is known to

But whistleblowers, including two top prison officials, documented the depth of dysfunction at the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta during a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday, with dozens of violent episodes and crises. Systematic efforts to minimize and conceal it have been described. The year

“On my very first day, I sat in my car and said, ‘What the hell — how does this happen at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons?'” Terry Whitehead, who recently became one of the prison’s top administrators. were serving as, said to the members. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Prison conditions, though extreme, reflect broader problems in the bureau’s vast network of 122 facilities that house about 158,000 inmates. The system is plagued by chronic overcrowding, understaffing, corruption, sexual violence and a culture that often encourages senior officials to downplay problems.

This month, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland appointed Colette S. Peters, the longtime director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, to serve as the bureau’s director. Ms Peters, whose mandate is to clean up the system, starts work next Tuesday.

Mr Garland’s team has faced criticism for the slow pace of reform, but officials appear to be moving more decisively, particularly on one of the most pressing issues – women inmates and the system. Sexual violence against staff members.

On July 14, Lisa O’Monaco, the deputy attorney general, sent a letter to department officials announcing a task force to establish a policy aimed at preventing “sexual misconduct” by prison employees over the next 90 days. To root out and stop the behavior”. Ms. Monaco said she was also instructing front-line prosecutors to make all cases of misconduct at the facilities a top priority, according to the letter, which was seen by OlxPraca.

Atlanta’s problems have been well documented in recent years. Atlanta Journal – Constitution and local prison reform groups. Over the past nine months, subcommittee staff dug deep to obtain internal incident reports and testimony from nearly two dozen current and former employees, including Ms. Whitehead.

The eyewitness account has been so bleak that it rivals jailhouse accounts from earlier centuries. It also largely echoed the bureau’s own internal reports over the past seven years, which found lax security procedures, poor management and deliberate use of security cameras and devices used to detect drug trafficking at the prison. Deactivation has been detected.

According to witnesses, conditions were particularly bad in the part of the prison that serves as a holding center for pretrial detainees, who have not been convicted of crimes.

Senator Jon Ossoff, Democrat of Georgia and chairman of the subcommittee, described the near-total debacle as “potentially resulting in loss of life, endangering the health and safety of inmates and staff, and endangering public safety and civil liberties.” damaged.”

Michael Carvajal, the bureau’s outgoing director, testified voluntarily, but only after being subpoenaed by the subcommittee. He said he moved as quickly as possible to replace the prison’s leadership team and temporarily relocate many inmates during renovations, given the bureaucratic hurdles.

Mr. Carvajal, a longtime department official who began his career as a guard in Texas in 1992, was tapped by Attorney General William P. Barr in February 2020 to run the bureau. He took office just as the coronavirus began to spread in the country’s prisons. As hundreds of thousands of inmates and corrections officers succumbed to the virus, Mr. Carvajal’s policies drew criticism from lawmakers of both parties.

But the system has long been plagued by problems. In 2019, the House Subcommittee on National Security found that misconduct was widespread, tolerated and routinely covered up or ignored, including among senior officials. A permissive environment According to the report, low-level employees are often subjected to abuse, including sexual assault and harassment, by inmates and staff members.

Health and safety issues, physical and sexual abuse, corruption and turnover in top management ranks are also rife. The pandemic has only exacerbated staffing problems, resulting in severe shortages of prison guards and health personnel, the Associated Press reported last year, describing a wide array of other shortfalls. went.

Pressed on the situation in Atlanta, Mr. Carvajal accepted some responsibility. But he blamed subordinates’ inaction and failure to apprise them of the gravity of the situation.

“It was clear that there was an error, but it did not rise to the level of my authority,” said Mr. Carvajal, who attributed some of the shortfalls to chronic budget shortfalls.

“I find it hard to believe that you were not aware of these issues,” said an angry Mr. Ossoff.

Mr. Carvajal, who is expected to retire, portrayed himself as a complex reformer doing his best under punishing circumstances, and rejected Mr. Ossoff’s suggestion that women who Working or incarcerated in federal prisons, they are vulnerable to sexual violence. He also suggested that many of Atlanta’s worst problems, including unsanitary conditions, were addressed shortly after they became aware of them last year.

Mr. Ossoff responded to a January letter from Timothy C. Batten, a federal judge in Georgia, that listed 15 current issues. These included rat and roach infestations, inmates losing weight due to poor food quality, strict solitary confinement rules and an instance where a suicidal inmate was denied medication and counselling. , and was released for a week. Just a paper jumpsuit and a paper blanket.”

Current and former employees described the Atlanta penitentiary as one of the worst federal facilities in the country, and said its demise was well known to the bureau’s top leaders.

Ms. Whitehead, a veteran federal corrections officer who began her career at an Atlanta prison in the 1990s, said that when she returned there a few years ago to end her career, she was “surprised and shocked.” “Was.

He recalled that the dining hall was so dirty and run down that staff were forced to violate safety protocol by opening the doors so the cats could hunt the rats roaming around the floor. Later, when officials searched inmates’ cellphones, which are banned because they can be used to order drugs or call gang rivals, they found 700, for every two inmates. Almost an illegal phone.

Drug use is rampant, and goes unchallenged by staff members who either turn away or sell drugs to inmates themselves.

“Prisoners are seen in a zombie state, and nothing is done to try to determine the source of the illegal substances,” Ms Whitehead added. “The Atlanta way is one where staff are not held accountable for misconduct.”

Erika Ramirez, who served as the prison’s chief psychiatrist from 2018 to 2021, said inmates were denied access to mental health services, allowing them to access a wide range of illegal drugs. And they were left without basic amenities like warm clothes and blankets.

“I repeatedly reported ongoing, uncorrected gross mismanagement of suicide prevention practices, staff mismanagement and general operational deficiencies,” Ms. Ramirez said. “I have repeatedly raised my concerns about other systematic failures of the administration and nothing has been done. Despite the desperate need for reform, any proposal for change has met with resistance.”