Congressional panel launches probe into Atlanta Federal Penitentiary

Problems cited include security gaps and inadequate or incompetent staffing that provided openings for contraband and raucous behavior among inmates

By Tia Mitchell
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Senate subcommittee is launching an investigation of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, and it has subpoenaed the head of the federal Bureau of Prisons as its first witness.

Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said he had asked the Department of Justice to allow Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal to voluntarily appear before the committee to answer questions but was turned down. The subpoena would compel Carvajal's testimony during a planned July 26 hearing.

"The subpoena is to come and testify under oath on Tuesday," Ossoff said. "And the Biden administration should cease obstructing our investigation by preventing his testimony."

The Justice Department released a statement expressing disappointment in the committee's decision to subpoena Carvajal, who announced in January that he was stepping down after months of scandal that include high rates of coronavirus infections among inmates and allegations of corruption and abuses at facilities across the nation.

Colette Peters will replace Carvajal as prisons director on Aug. 2. The Justice Department offered to have acting Deputy Director William Lothrop Jr. appear before the subcommittee instead.

"Ensuring Ms. Peters' success as BOP Director is a top priority for the Department, and we are committed to focusing Director Carvajal's final days at the agency on preparing the BOP and Ms. Peters for this transition in leadership," the department said in a statement. "As the Department has previously explained to the Subcommittee, we believe that preparation for testimony just five business days before this critical leadership transition may distract Director Carvajal's time and attention away from this goal. Nevertheless, we continue to work with the Subcommittee to find an agreeable solution."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spent years documenting controversies at the medium-security Atlanta penitentiary, a detention center for pre-trial defendants and a minimum-security prison camp contained at the same complex. Problems cited include security gaps and inadequate or incompetent staffing that provided openings for contraband and raucous behavior among inmates.

Last year, the prison was put under lockdown after dozens of cellphones and other unauthorized materials were found in just one of the penitentiary's units. Several senior officers were banned from the facility, and about 1,100 inmates were transferred to prisons in other states.

At its lowest point, the prisoner count at the penitentiary hovered around 100, but its website says the current headcount is 976.

Both Ossoff and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the highest-ranking Republican on the subcommittee, signed off on the Carvajal subpoena. Ossoff declined to provide specific details about the committee's investigation but noted that Carvajal has overseen federal prisons for the past two years and held senior positions in the bureau for years prior.

"The scope of our investigation for Tuesday's hearing," he said, "is corruption, abuse and misconduct at U.S. Penitentiary, Atlanta."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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