Jul 27, 2022 - News

Testimony alleges corruption and dysfunction at Atlanta Penitentiary

A black-and-white photo of the Atlanta's Federal Penitentiary circa 1902 building
Photo: Federal Bureau of Prisons/Agencia Federal de Prisiones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For nearly a decade, the Atlanta Penitentiary was a hotbed of corruption, misconduct, and dysfunction where rats and roaches roamed, drugs and cell phones flowed freely, and poorly trained guards were slow to respond to inmate suicide attempts.

  • That’s according to testimony Tuesday from former penitentiary staff and a legal advocate to a subcommittee chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, along with interviews and internal investigations reviewed by the panel.

Driving the news: Ossoff and Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, are calling for changes at the sprawling Federal Bureau of Prisons — a “diseased bureaucracy,” in the words of the Georgia senator — after a 10-month bipartisan probe into the agency’s operations of the southeast Atlanta lock-up.

Flashback: Centered on a 1902 Beaux Arts building, the facility was once the flagship of the federal prison system and has housed notable inmates including Al Capone, Jimmy "The Gent" Burke (made famous by Robert DeNiro in "Goodfellas"), and Carlo Ponzi of Ponzi Scheme fame.

Details: Internal audits and investigations dating to 2014 found guards skipping cell checks, inoperable surveillance cameras and officials failing to provide suicide prevention training, the senator said.

  • Some inmates were "emaciated from lack of nutrition" and lacked access to prescription medication, Ossoff said. Some of the allegations could have violated inmates' constitutional rights.
  • Erika Ramirez, who joined the penitentiary in 2018 as chief psychologist, and Terri Whitehead, a former jail administrator, said staff called the tolerance of the conditions — physical fights among staff, blatant drug use, and threats to employees — "the Atlanta Way."

The other side: Michael Carvajal, who became director of the Bureau of Prisons in February 2020, said he became aware of the issues this past summer. He reassigned the prison's leadership, reduced the inmate population and ordered repairs to the facility.

  • Carvajal, who in January announced his plans to retire, attributed the long-running issues to leadership not holding line staff accountable and responsible. "The breakdown here is people consciously chose not to follow the [policies]," he said.

The last word: "We're talking about human beings in the custody of the U.S. government," Ossoff said. "It's a disgrace. And for the answer to be 'other people deal with that, I got the report, I don’t remember,' it's completely unacceptable."

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