Senate panel told of 'outrageous' violations at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary

Problems included rodents, sewage backups, mold, ubiquitous contraband and a troubling suicide rate among inmates at the prison, also known as U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta

By Tia Mitchell
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WASHINGTON — A former administrator at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary said a rat infestation got so bad that staff propped open the doors to the building so stray cats from the surrounding neighborhood could get in.

"It is never a good idea to leave prison doors open," Terri Whitehead said during her testimony to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

That workaround to address the rat problem because the facility had no pest control plan was among the "outrageous" policy violations and behaviors Whitehead described during Tuesday's hearing. Former prison psychologist Erika Ramirez, whom the committee characterized as a whistleblower, said the problems also included sewage backups, mold, ubiquitous contraband and a troubling suicide rate among inmates at the prison, also known as U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta.

"In roughly four years, eight inmates at USP Atlanta died by suicide: two prior to my arrival and six during my tenure," Ramirez told the committee. "To put this into perspective, federal prisons typically see between one and three suicides over a five-year period."

Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, who chairs the subcommittee, said he convened the hearing after the panel reviewed documents and interviewed witnesses, leading to the conclusion that "gross misconduct persisted at this prison for at least nine years."

Ossoff, an Atlanta Democrat, said officials at the Federal Bureau of Prisons knew about the issues in Georgia and failed to act.

"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 lockdown 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 told the subcommittee that USPA is an embarrassment to the judicial system and noted that incarceration at USPA is like adding another layer of punishment due to the appalling conditions."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has documented issues at the penitentiary over the years, as well as a detention center for pre-trial defendants and a minimum-security prison camp contained on the same property south of downtown.

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. Since then, the prisoner headcount has rebounded and currently stands at 890.

The committee also heard Tuesday from a federal public defender who spoke about the conditions her client experienced at the facility. But the main attraction was the final speaker of the day: Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal.

The Justice Department had initially denied the committee's request to make Carvajal available, and the committee responded by issuing a subpoena to force his testimony. Carvajal ultimately agreed to come in voluntarily, and Ossoff said he withdrew the subpoena as a result.

Ossoff told Carvajal on Tuesday "the buck stops with you" repeatedly during questioning and said he was troubled that the director of federal prisons appeared to be unaware still of some of the specific concerns raised in Atlanta.

During his testimony, Carvajal acknowledged the issues at the penitentiary but said that steps had been taken to address them and the cultural issues among staff who called their methods of prison operations "the Atlanta way." He said he visited the facility in April to monitor progress.

"I want to stress that what happened in Atlanta is unacceptable," he said. "We recognized the gravity of alleged misconduct at that facility, and in July of 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."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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