Inmate suicides, sewage backups, non-existent security cited at Atlanta federal pen

Jon Ossoff Senate subcommittee opens hearings into alleged abuses, corruption at US Penitentiary
Published: Jul. 26, 2022 at 9:03 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 26, 2022 at 2:26 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - Several witnesses testifying Tuesday before a subcommittee chaired by Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff told the panel of shocking abuses and corruption they personally witnessed at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

“In the course of conducting this 10-month bipartisan probe, the subcommittee has secured and reviewed thousands of pages of internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and interviewed nearly two dozen BOP whistleblowers and other witnesses,” Ossoff, who chairs the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations, said.

“The totality of this evidence uncovered thus far paints a harrowing picture of a federal prison in crisis for many years,” Ossoff said. “Internal records reveal that, for years, some correctional services staff acted with impunity and even lacked regard for human life. The facility was extremely dangerous and insecure. Vast quantities of contraband, including weapons and narcotics, flowed through the prison, enabled by corrupt staff.

“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.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) is the ranking member on the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Ossoff said interviews and records revealed a facility where inmates, including pretrial detainees, 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.

Former jail administrator Terri Whitehead called the “many abuses and gross mismanagement I personally witnessed while serving at USP Atlanta” as “the Atlanta way.”

“The Atlanta way is far from norm and certainly not the Bureau of Prisons way,” Whitehead, who spent 30 years with the federal Bureau of Prisons. “The ‘Atlanta way’ is where staff are not held accountable for misconduct. Inmates are not challenged for negative behavior, and regular maintenance and routine repairs are nonexistent.

Staff members are actually involved in physical fights at work, which cases are uninvestigated and/or staff subsequently promoted within marijuana is routinely smelled inside the prison,” Whitehead said. “But there are no searches to determine which inmates for smoking. Inmates are observed in zombie state and nothing is done in an effort to determine the source of the illegal substances.”

Whitehead cited numerous policy violations which, she said, “put the staff inmates and the local community in danger. For example, there were so many rats inside the facility, dining hall and food preparation areas that staff intentionally left doors open so the many stray cats that hung around the prison could catch the rats.

“Six months into the pandemic, staff were not provided appropriate (personal protective equipment) to perform their duties within the pandemic,” she said. “Also, there were no designated COVID-19 isolation or quarantine areas in a detention center unit. In August 2020, it was reported half of the 300 security cameras did not operate appropriately and the other half were off by three hours. There were missing security controls and equipment to include keys, handcuffs and pepper spray.”

Dr. Erika Ramirez served as the jail’s chief psychologist from 2018 to 2021, and told the committee she “repeatedly reported ongoing, uncorrected, gross mismanagement of suicide prevention practices, staff misconduct, and general operational deficiencies.

“Unfortunately, the only response I received was unlawful retaliation,” Ramirez said. “I was involuntarily transferred to an FCI in Seagoville, Texas.”

Ramirez said the Atlanta federal pen was “falling apart” when she arrived. “Elevators were inoperable for months at a time; the walls were infested with mold; whenever it rained, the sewer would back up and overflow onto the recreation yard, sometimes leaving a foot of human waste behind,” she said. “Security wise, there was little to speak of. Given the volume and flagrante of the contraband, it was obvious that cell searches were not being properly conducted, if at all.”

Ramirez also cited a high rate of inmate suicide. “In roughly four years, eight inmates at USP Atlanta died by suicide; two prior to my arrival and six during my tenure,” she said. “To put this into perspective, federal prisons typically see between one and three suicides over a five year period.”

Rebecca Shepard, a staff attorney for the Federal Defender Program, Inc., said the jail “subjects people to inhumane and substandard conditions and limits their access to attorneys, which in turn interferes with their Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

“During my eight years as a defender, I have seen clients routinely locked down and allowed out of their cells for extremely limited periods of time, such as only 15 to 30 minutes, three to four times a week, or only an hour each day,” Shepard said. “And these lockdowns persist for months. Clients are treated as though they are in solitary confinement, not because of their behavior, but because of their misfortune and being placed at USP Atlanta.”