WASHINGTON — With just days left in office, the embattled director of the federal prison system faced a bipartisan attack on Tuesday when he refused to take responsibility for a culture of corruption and misconduct that has plagued his agency for years.
Bureau of Prisons director Michael Carvajal testified before the Senate Standing Subcommittee on Investigations, insisting he had been shielded from trouble by his subordinates – despite being copied into emails and some of the troubles in reports The Agency Headquarters.
Carvajal, who resigned in January and is set to be replaced next week by Oregon State Penitentiary Warden Colette Peters, blamed the size and structure of the Bureau of Prisons for its ignorance of issues such as inmate suicides, sexual abuse and the free flow of prisons responsible for drugs, arms and other contraband, which has affected some of the agency’s 122 facilities.
Carvajal has said several times that the Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest division with a budget of more than $8 billion, is a “very large and complex organization” and that there is “no way” for him to know everything what’s going on.
Carvajal’s attempts to deflect responsibility for his leadership shortcomings did not sit well with either the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., or its senior member, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., whose scrutiny became the Bureau of Prisons spurred in part by Associated Press reporting, which has uncovered countless crises at the agency.
Carvajal further angered the senators by first refusing to testify after the subcommittee subpoenaed him on July 14 — and then, when he arrived at the hearing room, claiming he was there voluntarily. Ossoff withdrew the subpoena immediately prior to Carvajal’s testimony, only after the director appeared at the hearing.
“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 happening below me. I don’t want to hear about rape. I don’t want to hear about suicides.”
Ossoff added: “It’s a shame. And in order for the answer to come, others deal with it. I got the report. I do not remember. That is totally unacceptable.”
After that, Carvajal ran away from reporters who wanted to talk to him about his testimony. The director, who has turned down nearly all interview requests since taking office in 2020, ducked into a freight elevator with helpers before falling down a flight of stairs when they found reporters had been following them.
Tuesday’s hearing, one of several promised by the subcommittee, focused on years of misconduct and abuse at a federal prison in Atlanta, but the issues it uncovered speak to larger systemic issues at the Bureau of Prisons, such as: B. severe staff shortages, poor health care and barely edible food.
A 120-year-old relic in Ossoff’s home state, Atlanta Prison was once home to 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’s a crumbling, medium-security facility – no longer a prison in the true sense of the word – with about 900 male inmates, including people awaiting trial.
Tuesday’s hearing, which included testimony from Atlanta whistleblowers ahead of Carvajal’s questioning, came amid an AP investigation that has uncovered widespread problems within the agency, including delinquent employees, escaping inmates, a women’s prison that treated staff and inmates as ” Rape Club” is notorious for rampant employee sexual abuse and critically understaffing that has hampered emergency response.
Witnesses described what they believed to be known as the “Atlanta Way” — a culture that allowed prison misconduct to persist for years.
Carvajal told the committee he only learned of the prison’s problems last year and took immediate action, reducing inmate numbers and firing dozens of managers. Despite this, the witnesses said, the facility is still in dire straits.
Ossoff said the evidence obtained by the subcommittee investigators showed the agency’s leadership was alerted to problems in Atlanta as early as 2014. Carvajal has been a member of the agency’s top management since 2013.
Erika Ramirez, the Atlanta prison’s former chief psychologist, said she was transferred to another federal prison in retaliation after raising concerns about poor conditions and a string of inmate suicides. Ramirez said she alerted the warden, other senior officials and agency headquarters to no avail.
Ramirez said smuggling problems were so widespread that she confiscated a contraband microwave from an inmate, only to find it in another inmate’s cell just days later. She said she confirmed it was the same device when she saw the serial number, she said.
Ramirez said the mold-infested jail had such shabby 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 the prison last year, testified that there were so many rats in the catering area that staff left the prison doors wide open for stray cats to tend to them — an approach that in her opinion this endangered the security of the prison.
Ossoff told the AP after the hearing that Carvajal’s testimony “lacked credibility at times” and that the warden’s claim that he was unaware of the problems at the Atlanta prison until about a year ago “strains credibility.”
In one of the most tense moments of the hearing, Ossoff Carvajal urged rampant sexual abuse at FCI Dublin, a federal women’s prison in California’s Bay Area known to staff and inmates as the “rape club.” Among the Dublin employees charged so far is the prison’s former warden.
“Is the Bureau of Prisons able to protect female inmates from sexual abuse by staff?” Osoff asked. “Yes or no?”
“Yes, we are,” Carvajal shot back. “In cases where something happens, we hold people accountable accordingly.”
“You are the warden at a time when one of your prisons is known to staff and inmates as the ‘Rape Club,'” Ossoff said, causing Carvajal to pause and stare at him.
Pressed for a reply, Carvajal said the matter was being investigated.
Afterwards, Ossoff questioned Carvajal’s claims that the Bureau of Prisons can keep female inmates — or all inmates — safe.
“It is demonstrably false that female inmates are safe in Bureau of Prisons custody,” Ossoff told the AP. “That is demonstrably wrong. And it is demonstrably false that every inmate can rely on the quality of nursing and medical care provided at multiple BOP facilities.”
https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/federal-prisons-director-angers-senators-deflecting-blame-agency-failu-rcna40164 Federal prison director angers senators by deflecting blame for agency failure