The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is in disarray. Relations between management and labor is at an all time low, the agency is failing at implementing the First Step Act and COVID-19 continues to ravage its institutions.. A recent survey by Partnership for Pubic Service, which ranks best places to work within the US government, ranked the BOP near last among 432 federal agencies. It ranked dead last in Effective Leadership category. This comes at a time when the BOP is trying to recruit new workers to make up for many veteran BOP employees who are leaving the agency.
The current director of the BOP Michael Carvajal who worked his way up through the BOP from a front line corrections officer to the top job. Selected by President Donald Trump to run the agency just after the high-profile suicide of inmate Jeffrey Epstein in 2019, Carvajal was doomed from the start. Carvajal took over the BOP in January 2020 just as COVID-19 was hitting the shores of the U.S. Reluctant to follow the agency’s own policy on controlling COVID-19 contagion in prison with an existing Flu Pandemic Influenza Plan, the BOP’s delayed reaction had deadly consequences. Over 300 prisoners have died from COVID-19, 7 staff members died and tens of thousands were infected since the start of the pandemic.
In April 2020, Carvajal was directed by then-Attorney General William Barr to move many medically vulnerable inmates who had underlying health conditions out of harms way by placing them on home confinement under the CARES Act. The CARES Act, declared emergency situations in prisons that called for depopulating them to make more room for prisoners and staff to social distance. Those who could participate in the program represented minimum security inmates. Carvajal mislead Congress by inflating his use of the program by stating that as many as 37,000 prisoners had been released when in fact it was around 5,000. According to the BOP’s own website, the federal prison population has increased since the CARES Act went into place.
The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) announced that Carvajal has been subpoenaed to testify at a July 26 Subcommittee hearing investigating corruption, abuse, and misconduct at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta. An article appeared here in December 2021 presenting a leaked report on USP Atlanta, a facility that is temporarily closed due to facility repairs, mismanagement and corruption. A string of prisoner suicides also plagued the institution, leading to its closing to reboot operations that had hobbled along on broken cameras, open spaces in fences, leaking ceilings, broken sewer pipes and morale among staff that had hit rock bottom.
It is unusual to have the exiting BOP director called before a Senate committee. Carvajal will soon be replaced by Colette Peters who is a BOP outsider coming to the agency from the Oregon Department of Corrections. Senator Dick Durbin welcomed Peters’ appointment and could not resist kicking Carvajal on the way out the door by releasing a statement, “It’s no secret that BOP has been plagued by misconduct. One investigation after another has revealed a culture of abuse, mismanagement, corruption, torture, and death that reaches to the highest levels. In light of those reports, I called for former BOP Director Michael Carvajal’s resignation last November. So it was welcome news when six weeks later, he announced his resignation.”
Carvajal has led an elusive agency under his tenure. Reluctant to disclose answers to Congress, numerous requests for information sent to Carvajal were either ignored or the answers were meaningless because of their delinquency. PSI Chair Jon Ossoff (D-GA) issued the subpoena on Thursday, July 14, joined by Ranking Member Ron Johnson (R-WI), after PSI requested repeatedly to hear testimony from Director Carvajal dating back to spring 2022, and after the Department of Justice refused to make Director Carvajal voluntarily available to testify.
In a statement, Chair Ossoff and Ranking Member Johnson said, “To date, the Subcommittee has been provided no legal basis that would prevent Director Carvajal’s testimony before the Subcommittee, and the Department of Justice continues to refuse to make him available to testify.”
Perhaps Carvajal will have some answers but that is doubtful. He is riding off to retirement with no incentive to help the BOP that he has seemingly run into the ground. While the senators have questions of Carvajal, so do staff members, families of prisoners and prisoners themselves. It is doubtful Carvajal will change his colors in his last days in office and tell the truth about his many misguided decisions … but if he did, it would be a huge step in improving the organization.