(The Center Square) — A U.S. senator from Georgia lambasted the federal penitentiary in Atlanta as “extremely dangerous and insecure,” saying that prison records show staff “acted with impunity and even lacked regard for human life.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing investigating corruption, abuse, and misconduct at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta (USP Atlanta).
“The facility was extremely dangerous and insecure,” U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, the subcommittee’s chair, said in his prepared opening remarks. “Vast quantities of contraband, including weapons and narcotics, flowed through the prison, enabled by corrupt staff.”
Added Ossoff: “These were stunning failures of federal prison administration that likely contributed to the loss of life; jeopardized the health and safety of inmates and staff; and undermined public safety and civil rights in the State of Georgia and the Southeast Region of the United States.”
USP Atlanta, which opened in 1902, has been the center of various scandals in recent years, including allegations that inmates don’t have adequate access to mental health treatment, clean water and legal counsel.
“We recognize the gravity of the alleged misconduct at USP Atlanta. It is and was unacceptable—and must never happen again at that facility or any other,” Michael Carvajal, the outgoing director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), said in prepared testimony. Ossoff and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, the subcommittee’s ranking member, issued a subpoena last week to compel Carvajal’s testimony.
Witnesses testified about the “Atlanta Way” at the penitentiary, which Terri Whitehead, former jail administrator at USP Atlanta, defined as “shorthand to justify the status quo and provide cover to bureaucrats.”
“The ‘Atlanta Way’ is the wrong way. But I was greatly outnumbered,” Whitehead said in prepared testimony, adding that at least one acting warden “understood and adopted” the approach.
“I quickly learned that the staff who knew better went along with the ‘Atlanta Way’ to not become an outcast or being viewed as going against the grain,” Whitehead testified. “A federal prison can be an extremely dangerous place, and staff, as correctional workers first, have a duty to keep a safe and secure facility. At USP-Atlanta, where security cameras do not properly operate and inmate negative behavior is unchecked, you do not want to be outcast.”
In December, a federal corrections officer at USP Atlanta and two federal inmates were arraigned on charges that they planned to smuggle contraband and narcotics into USP Atlanta between June 2018 and February 2019. In May, a long-time correctional officer at a county jail in Prattville, Alabama, and her fiancée, an inmate at USP Atlanta, were sentenced after they were convicted of trying to smuggle methamphetamine into USP Atlanta.
“USP-Atlanta was once the flagship of the BOP,” Erika Ramirez, former chief psychologist at USP Atlanta, said in prepared testimony. “It is now a penitentiary in name only.”
Rebecca Shepard, staff attorney for the Federal Defender Program, told lawmakers that “USP Atlanta subjects people who are detained while they await trial and are presumed innocent to inhumane conditions.”
By T.A. DeFeo | The Center Square contributor