Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal is resigning in the wake of highly publicized allegations against BOP staff, including murder and sexual abuse. His successor will inherit an agency rife with corruption and a detention system where COVID has devastated prisoners and staff.
The BOP, an agency under the Department of Justice (DOJ), oversees a national system of prisons and detention centers for people accused of or convicted on federal charges. More than 135,000 people are currently in BOP custody. The Trump administration appointed Carvajal director in 2020, and President Biden retained him in the role.
In November 2021, the Associated Press reported widespread arrests and convictions among BOP staff, which the agency often did not investigate. The allegations included murder, coerced sex, bribery and smuggling illicit drugs and guns into BOP facilities.
Carvajal spent three decades in the agency. He will remain director until a successor is in place, the timeline for which is unclear.
Under Carvajal, the BOP has also faced Congressional investigation and lawsuits over COVID precautions. To date, BOP has reported 275 prisoners and seven staff members who have died from COVID. Nearly 42,000 prisoners and nearly 8,900 staff members have tested positive and recovered.
“People in prison are really reluctant to file grievances because of a fear they’ll suffer retaliation from prison staff.”
“We’ve heard problems from day one from family members about widespread outbreaks, not being quarantined, not being isolated, not getting the proper sanitation materials that they needed,” Molly Gill, vice president of policy at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told Filter. “People sleeping next to people who were very, very ill and just waiting to get ill themselves.”
During the pandemic, prisoners in BOP facilities have faced severe overcrowding with little or no ability to isolate, medical requests ignored for months and retaliation for protesting.
“Each prison facility is its own sort of fiefdom,” Gill said. “There’s not a lot of consistency across the system about how facilities are run. People in prison are really reluctant to file grievances because of a fear they’ll suffer retaliation from prison staff.”
The BOP also has no dedicated independent watchdog agency. The DOJ’s Office of Inspector General (OIG DOJ) is responsible for investigating the BOP, but it’s also busy with other agencies like the FBI and the DEA.
“What really needs to happen is independent oversight of this agency,” said Gill. A new entity needs to be established, with “the power to walk into a facility at any time and do an inspection.”
“They are married to a culture that is corrupt and tainted and needs to be changed.”
Kara Gotsch, deputy director at The Sentencing Project, noted the BOP has routinely failed to comply with investigations by both OIG DOJ and Congress, which also oversees it. The abuses didn’t start with Carvajal, and won’t end after he’s gone.
“The BOP hires and promotes from within,” Gotsch told Filter. “Those are folks who literally grew up in that agency and have worked there almost their entire careers. That, to me, is part of the problem—they are married to a culture that is corrupt and tainted and needs to be changed.”
She hopes that Carvajal’s successor will have a track records of improving conditions for prisoners. She identified the highest priority as reducing the prison population.
“With legislation we can do a lot,” she said. “Ending mandatory minimums, capping sentences at 20 years, second look at 10 years—there are a lot of legislative opportunities that Congress absolutely could enact.”
Photograph via United States Senator Dick Durbin