ATLANTA — A U.S. Senate Committee investigation has uncovered that security and safety lapses at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary are so bad, a government assessment called it a security risk for people across the southeast.
Whistleblowers who previously worked behind the walls at that federal prison in Atlanta testified under oath on Capitol Hill to the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations. The committee is chaired by Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff.
“It is now a penitentiary in name only,” the facility’s former chief psychologist, Erika Ramirez, testified.
Former jail administrator Terri Whitehead testified that Bureau of Prisons employees even had a nickname for the disfunction. They called it “the Atlanta Way.”
“The Atlanta way is far from the norm and certainly not the U.S. Bureau of Prisons way,” Whitehead said.
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The committee’s investigation uncovered thousands of pages of internal records documenting mismanagement and wrongdoing at the facility in Southeast Atlanta dating back nine years.
Among the safety concerns identified, 800 contraband cell phones were confiscated in a 2021 sweep. In 2020, more than half of the surveillance cameras did not work. 142 of 253 cameras were down, and even the ones in operation were three hours off in recording time.
The investigation also uncovered that staff “intentionally damaged” the prison’s drug detection machine. It did not work for a year.
“This was a major ongoing failure that presented a risk not to just inmates and staff but the city of Atlanta, state of Georgia and the whole country,” Ossoff told Channel 2 Investigative reporter Justin Gray.
For years, Channel 2 Action News has reported on security lapses at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. In 2018, we learned that some inmates were coming and going through holes in the fences and smuggling in contraband liquor, cigarettes and cellphones. And in 2019, we reported on an inmate even using a contraband cell phone to broadcast a Facebook livestream from his prison cell.
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Terri Whitehead testified that guards often left the prison doors open because of the facility’s rat problem.
“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,” Whitehead said.
Ossoff had originally issued a subpoena for Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal to testify. He ended up testifying voluntarily and pledged that the Bureau of Prisons is now working to fix the problems in Atlanta. He made a site visit to Atlanta in April.
“What I observed there is they are addressing these issues. We have constant challenges every day. When we become aware of them, we address them,” Carvajal said.
But Ossoff repeatedly pressed Carvajal under questioning about what he knew about the Atlanta problems, and when he knew it. “Frankly, I found the director’s testimony that he was ignorant of any of this until last year not just to be credible,” Ossoff told Channel 2 Action News.
The Bureau of Prisons has terminated some senior leaders in Atlanta and moved dozens more out of the facility. They are also undergoing extensive renovations to the prison. As those changes are being made, it is currently only 42% full.
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“I want to stress that what happened in Atlanta was unacceptable. We recognize the gravity of the misconduct in that facility,” Carvajal said.
Senators expressed skepticism.
The ranking minority member of the committee, Sen. Ron Johnson, told Carvajal, “It’s almost willful ignorance.”
“The indication I got is that the Bureau of Prisons is not competent as currently run to address these issues or even be aware of them apparently,” Ossoff told Gray.
A new director of the Bureau of Prisons will take over in the coming weeks.
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