Senate probe spotlights ‘abusive and inhumane’ conditions at Atlanta penitentiary

A Senate investigative subcommittee held a hearing on Tuesday on its probe into corruption at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, which found that prisoners were held in squalid conditions without access to basic necessities like clean water and medical care.

“The totality of this evidence uncovered thus far paints a harrowing picture of a federal prison in crisis for many years,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Ossoff said contraband items were prevalent at the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) Atlanta, including drugs and weapons.

“Conditions for inmates were abusive and inhumane, and should concern all of us who believe in our country’s constitutional traditions — that all people have an Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and a Sixth Amendment right to counsel,” Ossoff said.

He said inmates, including detainees who had not been convicted of crimes, “were denied proper nutrition, access to clean drinking water, and hygiene products; lacked access to medical care; endured months of lockdowns with limited or no access to the outdoors or basic services; and had rats and roaches in their food and cells.”

Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Michael Carvajal testified in response to Ossoff’s questioning that he was unaware of the conditions at the penitentiary.

“I don’t recall, Senator, without knowing, I truthfully, we have a lot going on in a very large, complex organization. I assure you that if I was aware, as with anything I would have conducted or taken action,” Carvajal said.

The rate of suicide at the Atlanta prison was also significantly higher than average, according to the facility’s former chief psychologist Erika Ramirez.

From 2012 to 2020, 12 inmates died by suicide, while the typical number is one to three deaths by suicide every five years.

“As the chief psychologist at USP Atlanta from 2018 to 2021, I repeatedly reported ongoing, uncorrected, gross mismanagement of suicide prevention practices, staff misconduct, and general operational deficiencies,” Ramirez said. “Unfortunately, the only response I received was unlawful retaliation.”

Ramirez testified that she was moved to a different prison because of her insistence on following suicide prevention and other protocols.

The subcommittee found that suicide investigations at the penitentiary noted that “staff responded with no apparent sense of urgency” when they discovered the bodies of inmates who were victims of suicide.