Atlanta federal prison 'lacked regard for human life'; weapons, drugs trafficked, Senate panel says
For years, the federal penitentiary in Atlanta was a haven for corruption and abuse in which staffers routinely helped traffic weapons and drugs in a facility that has long operated as one of the most dangerous in the vast federal system, a Senate panel concluded during a congressional hearing Tuesday.
"These were stunning failures of federal prison administration that likely contributed to the loss of life," said Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate Investigations subcommittee. "Conditions for inmates were abusive and inhumane, and should concern all of us who believe in our country’s constitutional traditions."
Much of the most damning information, Ossoff said, had been known for years to top Bureau of Prisons officials based on findings in the agency internal audits.
"Internal BOP records reveal that, for years, some correctional services staff at USPA acted with impunity and even lacked regard for human life," the senator said.
A 2020 report cited by the committee found a constellation of security lapses contributing "to a dangerous and chaotic environment of hopelessness and helplessness, leaving inmates to their own means to improve their quality of life."
"In one instance, prison staff had to borrow a razor blade from a prisoner to cut the ligature suspending a prisoner who had hung himself in his cell," Ossoff said, referring to the BOP's documents.
The findings, the result of a 10-month inquiry, reveal yet another layer of dysfunction at an agency long plagued by security breakdowns, staffing shortages, misconduct and the ravages of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
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"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," Ossoff said.
"One federal judge described USPA an embarrassment to the judicial system and noted that incarceration at USPA is like adding another layer of punishment due to the appalling conditions."
Two former officials at the prison offered even darker accounts, describing a crumbling physical structure infested by mold and rats. Regular sewage back-ups often left standing pools of human foot waste a foot deep.
Erika Ramirez, who served as chief psychologist at the penitentiary between 2018 and 2020, said the facility operated as "a penitentiary in name only."
Ramirez said her repeated reports of dysfunction prompted an abrupt transfer to a facility in Texas as "retaliation."
The psychologist said the unmanaged flow of drugs that persisted for years contributed to a rash of suicides.
Terri Whitehead, who served as the former jail administrator in Atlanta, referred to "so many rats" in the inmate dining hall and other areas that staffers often left the doors open to allow cats in to catch the rodents.
Half of the facility's 300 surveillance cameras were inoperable, she said, while the other half showed time stamp delays of three hours.
"I was shocked; I was appalled by conditions in Atlanta," Whitehead said, adding that she, too, was transferred after calling attention to the nightmarish conditions.
Ramirez and Whitehead referred to the absence of leadership and chronic dysfunction as "the Atlanta way." And those who called attention to it, risked their careers.
"It's a disgrace to the U.S. government," Ossoff said.
Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal described the findings as "unacceptable," saying that the agency has since taken action to replace prison leadership and physically renovate the dilapidated facility.
Yet Carvajal acknowledged that he was largely unaware of the deteriorating conditions in Atlanta outlined in internal audits dating to 2015 until 2021 – three years after Carvajal began serving as an assistant director for programs and a year after he was named director of the agency.
Carvajal said chilling reports of security lapses, threats to inmate safety, weapons and drug trafficking never were brought to his attention, including a 2020 security assessment which described the troubled Atlanta prison as a "security risk to the southeast region of the United States."
The director, who is set to retire next month, also said he was unaware of a January letter from a federal judge which outlined continuing "abusive conditions" that threatened inmates' health and safety.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced the appointment of Colette Peters, a longtime Oregon prisons administrator, to lead the troubled agency.
On Tuesday, Carvajal repeatedly directed much of the responsibility to the agency's regional director who oversaw operations, along with the local warden and other officers – all replaced beginning in 2021.
Yet even as the "appalling" conditions persisted in recent years, some of those leaders were rewarded with bonuses, according to documents reviewed by USA TODAY.
J.A. Keller, the former southeast regional director, was recommended for awards totaling $24,000 in 2019 and $25,500 in 2020, while former warden William Woods was recommended for a $12,000 payment in 2019.
"It's almost willful ignorance," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said, describing the agency's leadership structure, which Carvajal claimed did not receive crucial information about serious failures at one of the system's largest institutions.
Repeatedly pressed about his lack of knowledge of the conditions in Atlanta, Carvajal said the agency appeared to be "stuck" in information silos.
"This is clearly a diseased bureaucracy," Ossoff said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sen. Jon Ossoff: Atlanta federal prison 'lacked regard for human life'