Federal Prisons

Biden's New Bureau of Prisons Director Won't be Able To Run Away From the Agency's Corruption

The federal prison system is plagued by corruption and civil rights abuses. 


We last saw outgoing Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Michael Carvajal running down a stairwell on July 26. He was trying to get away from some Associated Press reporters who revealed systemic dysfunction and corruption within the federal prison system—an apt ending for his tenure.


Carvajal had just finished testifying before a Senate subcommittee conducting a bipartisan investigation into corruption and abuse at a federal prison complex in Atlanta. Congressional investigators found that senior leadership at both the complex and the BOP had been aware of the issues for years.

With Carvajal jogging his way out of office—his resignation was announced in January—it will be Colette Peters' turn to sit in the hot seat. The Biden administration announced last month that it was tapping Peters, the director of Oregon's prison system, to head the beleaguered BOP. Previous directors have almost all come up through the agency, so the choice of an outsider is a signal in itself that the administration has lost faith in the BOP leadership. 

Peters has told the Associated Press that she wants to "create an environment where people can feel comfortable coming forward and talking about misconduct." That will be no easy task, and she won't be able to outrun the problems she's inheriting. Corruption, dysfunction, and civil rights abuses have infected every level of management in the large federal agency. 

"From sexual violence and medical neglect to understaffing and years-long lockdowns, the BOP's leadership has allowed a humanitarian crisis to develop on its watch," Kevin Ring, president of the criminal justice advocacy nonprofit FAMM, said in a press release. "Families with incarcerated loved ones have been begging for change."

Last month, the head of the local BOP employee union at FMC Carswell, a federal medical center for incarcerated women, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that—as the newspaper summarized it—"upper management at the prison covers up reports of misconduct by supervisors, retaliates against staff who file complaints and violates federal law by not honoring contract negotiations."

In February, an Associated Press investigation into FCI Dublin, a federal women's prison in California, found "a permissive and toxic culture at the Bay Area lockup, enabling years of sexual misconduct by predatory employees and cover-ups that have largely kept the abuse out of the public eye."

Reason reported in 2020 on allegations of three cases of fatal medical neglect at FCI Aliceville, a federal women's prison in Alabama. The daughters of one woman who died in Aliceville, Hazel McGary, said they had been calling the prison for months trying to get help for their increasingly sick mother.

"They ain't do nothing," Kentiesha Kimble told Reason. "They laughed at her. They said she was faking. They told us she was too young to be having a heart attack."

The story also included a former inmate at Carswell who recounted watching a woman in a wheelchair die from a heart attack after being turned away by medical staff several times.

In 2019, 14 current and former inmates of a federal women's prison in Florida filed a lawsuit saying guards subjected them to unending sexual abuse and threats. The suit also claimed that prison leadership created a "sanctuary" for guards who were known sexual predators. The federal government later settled the suit.

Congressional investigators released a report in 2019 finding that serious misconduct at BOP is "largely tolerated or ignored altogether."

USA Today reported in 2018 on staffing problems that resulted in prison nurses and other auxiliary staff being pressed into guard duty. 

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problems within federal prisons. There were extended lockdowns, months of nothing but cold and paltry food, and allegations from both correctional officer unions and inmates that the BOP had deeply botched its response to the virus. 

Reason reported that the first female federal inmate to die of COVID-19, Andrea Circle Bear, was transferred to federal prison despite being pregnant. She was admitted to a hospital less than a week later. She died several weeks after being placed on a ventilator and having an emergency cesarean section to deliver her baby. She was serving a 2-year sentence for a nonviolent drug crime.

"During Carvajal's tenure, the BOP has been a black box," Ring said. "When COVID began spreading in federal prisons and families' fears were at their greatest, Carvajal and the BOP somehow became less transparent. The BOP's opaqueness felt like cruelty. We hope the incoming secretary is prepared to make significant changes to a system badly in need of them."