COs at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary push back on senator's criticisms

Union leader expressed concern that employees were being blamed for systemic issues that had been long ignored

By Tia Mitchell
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — The leader of the union representing guards at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary said he was troubled by the testimony during a recent U.S. Senate hearing on issues at the facility, worrying that employees were being blamed for systemic issues that had been long ignored.

Days after the hearing, union President Morell Huguley fired off a letter to the head of the committee, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, inviting him to come tour the prison, also known as USP or USPA.

Huguley said union members who work in the medium-security prison were "embarrassed" by the investigation and took issue with what he said were contentions that the employees working there were "dirty."

"The term 'dirty staff' is a horrific term in our profession," he wrote to Ossoff, an Atlanta Democrat. "It is the most disgusting term to describe an individual correctional worker. This term has been used loosely to describe all staff here at USP Atlanta."

The letter came after the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations revealed the findings of its 10-month investigation of the penitentiary during a July 26 meeting.

A former administrator testified about staff leaving doors at the lockup propped open so stray cats from the neighborhood could gain access to address the rat problems. High inmate suicide rates, poor nutritional offerings and rampant issues with contraband were all discussed.

A U.S. district judge penned a letter to the prison's warden in January and said the court had received complaints of "persisting problems" in the prison, including a lack of access to hygiene products and medication and difficulties arranging interviews between inmates and psychologists. One inmate who was on suicide watch was provided only a paper jumpsuit and paper blankets for a week, according to the judge's letter.

Ossoff laid much of the blame at the feet of officials at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, saying they allowed issues at the penitentiary to fester.

"The investigation has revealed that gross misconduct persisted at this prison for at least nine years, and that much of the damning information revealing misconduct, abuse, and corruption was known to BOP and accessible to BOP leadership during that period," he said during opening remarks.

"For many years, the facility has been extremely dangerous and insecure. Correctional Services staff at USPA engaged in misconduct with impunity and, according to BOP's own internal investigations, lacked regard for human life. Vast quantities of contraband, including weapons and narcotics, flowed through the prison, enabled by staff corruption."

But Huguley said the hearing placed an unfair amount of responsibility on union members rather than on managers. Some of the critiques, he said, came from "disgruntled supervisors in management positions, who were otherwise complicit with the alleged corruption that has been ongoing in this agency for years."

"Prior to this probe, the optimism here at USP Atlanta was palpable and amazingly fervent," he wrote. "Our bargaining unit staff (union members) are excited to discuss ideas to prepare the agency for this new paradigm with USP Atlanta moving forward in the right direction."

Ossoff's office said that not only did the senator read the letter, but he spoke to Huguley and promised to keep listening. Ossoff is also interested in taking Huguley up on his offer to tour the prison, located southeast of downtown Atlanta near where the senator once lived. But nothing has been scheduled yet.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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