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Progressives, prison workers and prisoners are in agreement: the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Michael Carvajal, should be fired. The Bureau of Prisons is in a crisis several layers deep, and new leadership will be key to its reformation.
As the Revolving Door Project has long argued, the best time for firing the Trump appointees subject to termination was January 20, 2021—i.e., the moment Biden became president. The White House was reportedly considering ousting Carvajal six months ago, but hasn’t taken action. In the meantime, the case for his removal has only grown stronger.
A November 14, 2021 AP investigation revealed that the Bureau of Prisons is a “hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption,” with over 100 federal prison employees arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the beginning of 2019. Since then, many have renewed their calls for Carvajal’s firing, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL). The disturbing extent of recently reported criminal behavior by prison workers is just one in a cascade of federal prison crises over the last two years.
Carvajal was appointed as Director in February 2020 by then-Attorney General Bill Barr. Barr’s endorsement of Carvajal should have immediately raised red flags for Biden, whose criminal justice agenda prioritizes reduced incarceration; Barr literally wrote the handbook for mass incarceration back in 1992. Barr made his “case for mass incarceration” in three points: “First, prisons work. Second, we need more of them. Third, inadequate prison space costs money.” At the time of Barr’s nomination as Attorney General, Democrats feared that he wouldn’t implement the First Step Act, a significant bipartisan criminal justice reform bill passed in 2018. In fact, it is Carvajal who may have most significantly undermined it.
One crucial element of the First Step Act aims to reduce incarceration by assessing individual inmates’ risk of re-offending and then placing them in preventative programs and activities matched to their needs. Possible programs range from academic classes to restorative justice programs and from vocational training to substance abuse treatment. Incentives for participation include “earned time credits,” where inmates can reduce their sentence by up to 54 days per year of imposed sentence.
On November 15, the Office of the Inspector General released a report revealing that the Bureau under Carvajal had not applied earned time credits to any of the 60,000 eligible inmates who completed such programs. The Bureau also failed to reward inmates who participated in the programs with the incentives laid out in the First Step Act, including additional phone and visitation time, and transfer to a facility closer to home. The Bureau’s excuse for this outright neglect is even more damning.
For the past 20 months, the Bureau of Prisons has refused to conduct formal policy negotiations with its own national union. (Management is supposed to meet with the union monthly.) At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., management requested that negotiations take place remotely. The union requested that negotiations take place in person, as is stipulated in their union contracts, and because prison workers have no option but to work in person. With both sides refusing to budge, policy negotiations languished, and elements of the First Step Act were among the 30 policies left unfinished.
These most recent revelations only add to Carvajal’s already appalling record of callous mismanagement. Both prison workers and prisoners, for example, felt that BOP leadership abandoned them during the pandemic. Documents obtained in an ACLU lawsuit against the Bureau reveal “desperate pleas from on-the-ground staff to their supervisors about incarcerated people and staff dying,” met with months of silence and occasional rebuffs. The Marshall Project found that the Bureau “was unprepared for the pandemic and slow to respond, and that top officials even took measures that contributed to the spread of the virus.” A whistleblower complaint from April 2020 alleged that the Bureau “knowingly misleads the American public” about conditions in federal prisons.
Prison workers joined other federal employees suing for hazard pay, and prisoners filed at least 11 class-action lawsuits to try to improve their conditions. While wardens ignored or denied 98 percent of compassionate release requests, prisons remained a cesspool of viral transmission. Over one third of federal prisoners and one fourth of staff contracted have COVID-19 so far, and 269 inmates and 7 Bureau staffers have died from the virus. Amid all of this, Carvajal oversaw an unprecedented number of federal executions, many of which were so badly handled that they became COVID superspreader events.
Under Carvajal’s leadership, a pre-existing staffing shortage at the Bureau of Prisons has reached crisis levels. Earlier this year, nearly a third of correctional officer jobs were vacant, forcing medical workers, teachers and cooks to work as guards. This also ate away at the vital programs and care for inmates that the Bureau under Carvajal already failed to properly implement.
A survey of Bureau employees from early 2021 found that 66 percent reported taking on responsibilities that are not a part of their job. 70 percent reported stress or anxiety at work, and 31 percent reported considering leaving the Bureau. The Bureau has paid hundreds of millions in overtime to their limited staff, while budgetary shortfalls prevented new hires from starting work for months. Carvajal’s employees have been dissatisfied with his leadership for nearly his entire term. If the Bureau is to avoid further staff loss, Biden must fire Carvajal without delay.
That will also be critical to fulfilling the President’s promises to deliver a more humane criminal justice system. For example, Biden rightly ended federal contracts with private, for-profit prisons early this year. But this shift means that federal prisons are taking on more inmates, with prisons already mismanaged, overcrowded, and understaffed. Bureau of Prison employees make up around 30 percent of the Department of Justices’ total workforce. While the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division investigates serial dysfunction in other prisons—filing suit this November against Alabama and its state prisons for violating the constitutional rights of their prisoners—who is investigating the prisons of the Department of Justice?
With criminal justice reform a stated priority of President Biden, and a rare bipartisan issue in Congress, there is simply no excuse for the executive branch to turn a blind eye to the dysfunctional prisons under its watch. The Bureau needs new direction, and Carvajal isn’t the one to lead it. He should be replaced with someone with a proven commitment to visionary criminal justice reform. Priorities for the next director should include fully implementing the First Step Act; bringing on leadership with health care experience; changing the policies which exclude undocumented immigrants—one third of federal inmates—from addiction and vocational programs; holding prison workers accountable for their misconduct; and reworking the Bureau’s $8 billion dollar budget to actually meet workers and prisoners’ needs.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what should be a broader and deeper conversation about the criminal justice system, and who it actually serves. But since it apparently still needs to be said: it’s time for new leadership at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Hannah Story Brown is a writer and researcher at the Revolving Door Project of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.