'Unacceptable' conditions inside Atlanta penitentiary come to light during hearing

For more than two hours Tuesday, members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee revealed disturbing details about the conditions inside the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta and posed pointed questions to the man tasked with overseeing the Bureau of Prisons.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, chaired the hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

"The evidence the Subcommittee has secured to date reveals stunning long-term failures of federal prison administration that likely contributed to loss of life; jeopardized the health and safety of inmates and staff; and undermined public safety and civil rights in the State of Georgia and the Southeast Region of the United States," said Sen. Ossoff.


Former employees at the facility testified that it "was falling apart."  

"When I arrived in Atlanta, my very first day I sat in my car and I said, 'What the hell?'" Terri Whitehead, a retired prison employee, recalled. "There were so many rats inside the facility, dining hall, and food preparation areas that staff intentionally left doors open so the many stray cats that hung around the prison could catch the rats. It is never a good idea to leave prison doors open." 

Employees said that when they tried to report facility issues or instances of staff misconduct, administrators never followed up with them.

"I personally have reported maybe six instances when I was in Atlanta in about 16 months. I was never interviewed. They are fights — staff fight each other; physical fights in the prison. Those cases are not investigated. There are staff that curse each other in the presence of inmates. I've witnessed it; I've reported it. I've never been interviewed," Whitehead explained. "Without a system of controls in place to curb misconduct amongst staff. The inmates feel that they can do whatever they want to do."

The former staffers reported ongoing problems with contraband including drugs, weapons and cell phones inside the facility as well.  

"Unfortunately, the ease of access to drugs makes it very difficult for mental health providers to differentiate between genuine mental illness and the effects of whatever unknown substance the individual may be on," said Dr. Erika Ramirez, who worked as the chief psychologist at the penitentiary. "So, we spend much of our time initially assessing you know what the individual is experiencing? Is this because of drugs? Have you had depression? It takes much longer to kind of tease out whether this is an organic issue or something created by a chemical that was recently ingested. Unfortunately, the lack of security, routine searches, routine drug testing is such that we can't--we always have to assume that the inmate is intoxicated." 

The subcommittee also heard from Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, but expressed frustration that he did not agree to testify until after they issued him a subpoena on July 14. The subcommittee withdrew that subpoena.  

"I want to stress that what happened in Atlanta was unacceptable," Director Carvajal said. "We recognized the gravity of the alleged misconduct at that facility and in July 2021 we determined that it was in the best interest of the institution to take significant action. We reassigned staff, transferred inmates, lowered the security level and began updating infrastructure at the facility."

Sen. Ossoff pushed back, though, when Director Carvajal, who assumed that role in February 2020, said he took action as soon as he was made aware of the issues.

"You were the assistant director at the national level for correctional programs. Were you or were you not aware in 2019 that these conditions prevailed at this facility? It's a yes or no question," said Sen. Ossoff.

"Senator, as I stated, the regional director has oversight — primary responsibility," said Director Carvajal. "We have internal processes in place where we speak about these issues."

"So, you were not aware," Sen. Ossoff said.  

Carvajal stressed that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has more than 120 facilities and 35,000 employees.  

"There have got to be changes at the Bureau of Prisons and it has to happen right now and with your departure and the arrival of a new director and I hope that moment has arrived," said Sen. Ossoff before adjourning the hearing.

Staff in Ossoff's office said he will explore filing additional legislation to reform the Federal Bureau of Prisons.