WASHINGTON — Widespread drug abuse, substandard medical and mental health care, out-of-control violence and horrific sanitary conditions are rampant at a federal prison in Atlanta, a new congressional investigation into the federal Bureau of Prisons has found.
The problems plaguing the medium-security prison, which holds around 1,400 people, are so notorious within the federal government that its culture of indifference and mismanagement is derisively known among bureau employees as “the Atlanta way.”
But whistle-blowers, including two top prison officials, documented the depth of dysfunction at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, describing dozens of violent episodes — and the systematic effort to downplay and cover up the crisis — over the past few years.
“My very first day, I sat in my car and said, ‘What the hell — how does this happen in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons?’” Terri Whitehead, who served as one of the prison’s top administrators until recently, said before members of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The conditions at the prison, while extreme, reflect wider problems in the bureau’s sprawling network of 122 facilities housing about 158,000 inmates. The system has suffered from chronic overcrowding, staffing shortages, corruption, sexual violence and a culture that often encourages senior officials to minimize the extent of the 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, begins the job next Tuesday.
Mr. Garland’s team has faced criticism about the slow pace of reform, but officials appear to be moving more decisively, especially on one of the most pressing issues — sexual violence against female inmates and staff members in the system.
On July 14, the deputy attorney general, Lisa O. Monaco, sent a letter to department officials announcing a task force to establish a policy aimed at “rooting out and preventing sexual misconduct” by prison employees over the next 90 days. Ms. Monaco said she was also instructing frontline prosecutors to make all misconduct cases at facilities a top priority, according to the letter, which was viewed by The New York Times.
The problems in Atlanta have been well documented in recent years by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and local prison reform groups. Over the past nine months, the subcommittee’s staff has dug deeper, obtaining internal incident reports and the testimony of around two dozen current and former employees, including Ms. Whitehead.
The witnesses’ assessment has been so bleak that it rivaled jailhouse accounts from earlier centuries. It also largely echoed the bureau’s own internal reports over the past seven years, which have found lax security procedures, deficient management and the intentional disabling of security cameras and equipment used to detect drug smuggling into the prison.
Conditions were especially bad in the section of the prison that serves as a holding center for pretrial detainees who have not been convicted of crimes, according to witnesses.
Senator Jon Ossoff, Democrat of Georgia and the chairman of the subcommittee, described a near-total breakdown in order “that likely contributed to loss of life, jeopardized the health and safety of inmates and staff, and undermined public safety and civil rights.”
Michael Carvajal, the bureau’s departing director, testified voluntarily, but only after being subpoenaed by the subcommittee. He said he took action as quickly as he could, given bureaucratic constraints, replacing the prison’s leadership team and temporarily relocating many inmates during renovations.
Mr. Carvajal, a longtime department official who began his career in 1992 as a guard in Texas, was tapped to run the bureau in February 2020 by Attorney General William P. Barr. He took over just as the coronavirus began to spread through the nation’s prisons. As hundreds of thousands of inmates and correctional officers contracted the virus, Mr. Carvajal’s policies drew criticism from lawmakers in both parties.
But the system has long been riddled with 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 often made lower-ranking employees susceptible to abuse, including sexual assault and harassment, by prisoners and staff members, according to the report.
Health and safety problems, physical and sexual abuse, corruption and turnover in the top management ranks have also been prevalent. The pandemic only exacerbated staffing issues, resulting in a vast shortage of prison guards and health personnel, The Associated Press reported last year, which described a wide array of other shortcomings.
Pressed on conditions in Atlanta, Mr. Carvajal accepted some responsibility. But he went on to blame the inaction of subordinates and their failure to inform him of the severity of the situation.
“It was obvious there was a breakdown, but it did not reach my level of authority,” said Mr. Carvajal, who attributed some of the deficiencies to chronic budget shortfalls.
“I find it hard to believe that you weren’t aware of these issues,” an angry Mr. Ossoff said.
Mr. Carvajal, who is expected to retire, portrayed himself as an embattled reformer doing his best under punishing circumstances, and rejected Mr. Ossoff’s suggestion that women who work or are held in federal prisons were unsafe from sexual violence. He also suggested that many of the worst problems in Atlanta, including unhealthy conditions, were addressed soon after he became aware of them last year.
Mr. Ossoff countered with a January letter from Timothy C. Batten, a federal judge in Georgia, listing 15 current problems. Those include rat and roach infestation, inmates who were losing weight because of the poor quality of the food, harsh solitary confinement rules and an instance in which an inmate on suicide watch was deprived of medication and counseling, and was left for a week “with only a paper jumpsuit and paper blankets.”
Current and former employees described the Atlanta penitentiary as among the worst federal facilities in the country, and said its collapse was well known to the bureau’s top leaders.
Ms. Whitehead, a veteran federal corrections official who began her career at the Atlanta prison in the 1990s, said she was “shocked and appalled” when she returned there a few years ago to finish her career.
The dining hall, she recalled, was so filthy and run down that the staff was forced to violate security protocols by opening the doors to allow feral cats to hunt rats scurrying around the floors. Later, when officials searched inmates for cellphones, banned because they can be used to order drugs or call in hits on gang rivals, 700 were found, approximately one illegal phone for every two inmates.
Drug use is rampant, and unchallenged by staff members who either turn their backs or sell narcotics to the inmates themselves.
“Inmates are observed in a zombie state, and nothing is done in an effort to determine the source of the illegal substances,” Ms. Whitehead added. “The ‘Atlanta way’ is where staff are not held accountable for misconduct.”
Erika Ramirez, who served as the chief psychologist at the penitentiary from 2018 to 2021, said prisoners were deprived of access to mental health services, allowed to obtain a wide range of illicit drugs and left without basic amenities, like warm clothing and blankets.
“I repeatedly reported ongoing, uncorrected gross mismanagement of suicide prevention practices, staff misconduct and general operational deficiencies,” Ms. Ramirez said. “I repeatedly expressed my concerns about other systematic failings to management and nothing was done. Despite desperate need for reform, any suggestion for change was met with resistance.”