A Review Of The Federal Prison In Atlanta Shows An Agency In Crisis

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported in 2017 about the “Wild West” atmosphere that defined USP Atlanta and its satellite minimum prison camp. The camp was like an open campus with inmates possessing an assortment of contraband and shuttling from the prison via a private (illegal) taxi service to go out on the town. The penitentiary had multiple instances of inmates possessing cell phones and drugs while the facility was in such disrepair that both inmates and staff felt that their health was at risk. Now, a BOP internal memorandum from 2020 reveals just how bad the facility’s condition was a year before reports this year of the institution transferring hundreds of inmates out of USP Atlanta.

UNITED STATES – DECEMBER 2: Michael Carvajal, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testifies … [+] before the House Judiciary Subcommittee during a hearing on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In November, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to replace BOP Director Michael Carvajal after less than two years on the job. Carvajal took over a beleaguered agency in January 2020 just as COVID-19 was about to rip through the United States. When President Donald Trump took office, he appointed retired Army Provost Marshal General Mark Inch to BOP Director and he lasted just over a year into his tenure after clashes with the administration over prison reform. An interim BOP director stepped in until the Jeffrey Epstein suicide in a federal prison in New York led to yet another agency crisis and another leader.

USP Atlanta was one of three penitentiary facilities created by the 1891 Three Prisons Act. It opened in 1902 and went through a number of renovations in the 1980s and 1990s. Of those three original prisons, only USP Atlanta and USP Leavenworth (Kansas) remain open. Atlanta once housed the most violent of inmates but was then downgraded to a Medium security prison years ago and is now destined to be Low security with fewer staff after a pending multi-million dollar upgrade. It still serves as a major transportation hub for hundreds of inmates being transferred across the country.

The AJC reported in August 2021 that USP Atlanta was mostly vacant amid a corruption scandal involving staff at the facility. In 2019, an inmate was criminally charged for using a contraband cell phone to livestream on Facebook from inside the prison. Just this month, a USP Atlanta employee and two inmates were charged in a smuggling ring. However, an internal memorandum from 2020 describes a facility that was in disrepair, lacking leadership and dangerous.

According to an August 31, 2020 United States Government Memorandum directed to J. [Jeffrey] A. Keller, Director Southeast Region of the BOP, “USP Atlanta presents significant security concern for the Southeast Region … [which] requires immediate corrective action.” The memo was the result of a Security Assessment performed August 25-27, just months after USP Atlanta passed its Program Review with a “Good” score. According to the BOP, Program Reviews examine the adequacy of controls, efficiency of operations, and effectiveness in achieving program results. Those institutions receiving a grade of “Good” not only relish in the positive rating but also qualify for a break of three years before another such Program Review. Those reviews have been the subject of whether or not the have become too chummy because members who conduct those reviews consist of BOP management from peer institutions. This point was made by the Counsel on Criminal Justice in 2018.

While rumors had swirled among staff that some sort of inspection might be coming in mid-2020, most, particularly line staff corrections officers, were caught by surprise. “The review team conducted tower inspections of seven, three towers” the report stated, “the officer assigned to three tower was not familiar with Use of Force procedures … was unfamiliar with the unloading procedures for the shotgun. The M-16 [rifle] assigned to this post was not in duty-to-carry condition. The officer had a round chambered inside the weapon.” The inspection team also noted that a guard in one of the towers did not verify the identity or even challenge the review team prior to allowing the inspection team to access his post.

A person who works at USP Atlanta who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, confirmed that in October 2021, a shotgun was accidentally discharged in one of the towers in Atlanta without an injury to anyone. However, there was substantial damage done to the ceiling.

The fencing around USP Atlanta was lacking as the report noted, “There were several areas where constantine (razor wire) was either missing or damaged.” Damage to perimeter fencing has been a problem throughout the BOP. Audit of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Perimeter Security Strategy, a comprehensive report prepared by the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (OIG), concluded, “We found that the BOP did not take adequate action to ensure that perimeter security deficiencies identified and addressed at one USP did not also exist at other, similarly situated USPs. We also found that the BOP lacks national policies that address various elements of its perimeter security strategy.” The report cited concerns about fencing as a result of an inmate escaping from USP Atwater – California, a High security facility, in 2017. The inmate scaled a prison wall and perimeter fence to escape … 24-hours later the person was taken back into custody. In addition to the security breach, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke, whose district covers USP Atwater, said local authorities were not alerted to the breach until hours after the inmate was discovered missing.

Earlier this year, bipartisan senators introduced legislation to update federal prison security camera systems across the country. This came after the OIG issued a report on much needed upgrades and noted deficiencies in the BOP’s cameras systems. The conditions of the cameras in Atlanta were deplorable. According to the review, “USP Atlanta has a total of 263 cameras … On the date of this review, 142 out of 263 cameras were either inoperable or not working properly. In addition, the time stamp on all the cameras is off by three hours.

Contraband was another issue addressed in the 2020 review of USP Atlanta. “Evidence collected by the Special Investigative Services is not being properly logged and stored … Large bags full of narcotics were observed just laying of [sic] the floor labeled “destroy.” There was no chain of custody.

Staff discipline was also a noted issue. “USP Atlanta has over 170 staff investigations that are delinquent. From January of 2020 to the date of this review [August 2020 … 7 1/2 months] 78 cases have been opened, with only 28 cases completed.

Inmates’ safety was compromised as a result of multiple institutional failures, particularly those with mental illness prone to self harm. According to a current employee of the BOP staff at USP Atlanta who did not want to be identified, between 2012 and 2021, there were 13 inmate suicides, 5 of those occurred between October 2019 and June 2021 . Reconstruction reports (referred to as After-Action] of those incidents noted a need for adherence to BOP policy and that Correctional staff needed to have “more regard for human life.” The review team stated in its memorandum that there were , “several instances where Lieutenants failed to make rounds on each shift for inmates who were on suicide watch. In addition, the fifteen (15) minute checks were not recorded in accordance with policy.

Running an inefficient facility is not cheap. In addition to the everyday costs, the review team noted in August 2020 that Atlanta “has accrued $5,833,777.91 in overtime expenditures (up to mid-August 2020).” For some of the staff in Atlanta, overtime is not just about the money. Many BOP personnel are mandated, required to work extra shifts once their shift ends, because of a staffing shortage. According to a recent internal email from USP Atlanta Warden Sylvester L. Jenkins to his staff, there were 30 staff who called in sick on Christmas Eve, 40 on Christmas Day and 38 again the day after Christmas. Warden Jenkins wrote that the staffs’ absences caused issues at the institution writing, “This did not allow some staff the opportunity to enjoy the holiday with family and friends. It also posed security concerns for the orderly running of the institution.” Staffing shortages have been a challenge for the BOP for years.

The consensus of the review team was that “USP Atlanta does not have strong internal controls to ensure institutional security.” Leadership within the BOP in Washington made an unprecedented decision to replace 44 BOP staff-level managers in Atlanta and send them to new assignments in other parts of the country. A letter received by one of those managers read, “This is notification that you are being reassigned. You occupy a position as a supervisor/manager, therefore you are subject to mobility based on the needs of the agency.” It went on to list the single position and location of the new position. Those affected have until January 2, 2022 to comply and take the new job. Many will be moved hundreds of miles from Atlanta and have to uproot their family. According to someone close to the situation of these employees, informal discussions with the prison’s senior management indicated that those managers being moved have received inconsistent or unclear explanation of the reasons for their reassignments and that many of the transfer destinations appeared to be arbitrary. These employees are being transferred from Atlanta, GA to as far as away as California, Minnesota and Texas. Many of the jobs of those being transferred, at government expense of millions of dollars, are being posted as “available” at USP Atlanta. One person at USP Atlanta who spoke to me under conditions of anonymity told me, “We can’t apply for our own jobs while the government is going to spend millions shipping us out and then millions more bringing people into take our jobs. These moves each can cost $100,000-$200,000 per job move. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Southeast Regional Director Keller retired from the BOP in November 2021.

These are unprecedented times for the BOP. MCC New York closed earlier this year because the building had fallen into disrepair, staff corruption cases abounded and the widely reported suicide of Jeffrey Epstein. FCI Estill (South Carolina), Medium security prison with a satellite minimum camp, was hit by a tornado that ripped up the fence, tore off parts of the roof and caused heavy damage to the facility. Within days of the incident, hundreds of inmates were transferred to a prison hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania. The remaining camp level, minimum security, inmates now live in deplorable conditions at the damaged institution. As USP Atlanta’s problems continue to mount, it is just one more blow to an agency that appears to be in free-fall.

A BOP employee who works at another institution and who also reviewed the memorandum told me, “The items listed are not a surprise. If they did this same type of assessment at other USPs they would get the same result, or close to it.