JOHN KIRIAKOU: The Scandal of US Prisons

The head of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons was forced to step down last week as scandals swept through the vast U.S. prison system.

A Block at Alcatraz Prison, 2008. (Nonie/Wikimedia Commons)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

Michael Carvajal, director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP), resigned in disgrace last week after being overwhelmed by scandals, none of which were necessarily of his doing so much as they were a result of his unwillingness or inability to make changes to the Justice Department’s largest and best-funded bureau. The scandals—and his resignation—reinforce the conventional wisdom that the BOP is broken and must be overhauled dramatically.

The Associated Press reported that Carvajal, a Trump appointee, was forced to resign after more than 100 BOP employees had been arrested for or convicted of crimes during his short two-year tenure. The employees were prosecuted for crimes ranging from smuggling drugs and cell phones into prisons to sell to prisoners, to theft, to a warden raping a prisoner. Following the rape arrest, the House Judiciary Committee investigated Carvajal and Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) demanded that he resign.

Carvajal. (BOP)

Carvajal’s tenure illustrates the problem with promoting a lowly BOP officer to a leadership position. He began his BOP career as a prison guard in 1992, worked his way up through the ranks, and was named a warden in the early 2000s. He then went to work at BOP headquarters in Washington, and finally became the BOP’s director. Good for him, right?

The problem, though, is that he brought literally no outside expertise to the job. He had never worked anywhere in his adult life other than the BOP. There would be no bold, new programs, no new ideas for reducing recidivism, no move to train prisoners to lead productive lives outside of prison. There was nothing.

Perhaps worst of all, Carvajal failed utterly to address the Covid-19 pandemic as it raged inside the walls of the country’s federal prisons in 2020. Indeed, many observers contend that his unwillingness to act cost dozens of prisoners their lives. Certainly, individual wardens could be criticized for their own inattention, but the buck has to stop somewhere.

  • Covid cases spread unabated at the federal prison at Fort Dix, NJ in early 2020, with 1,500 of the prison’s 3,000 inmates testing positive. Carvajal finally reassigned the warden, but only after two US senators and 10 state legislators demanded that he act.
  • At the federal prison hospital at Terminal Island, CA, officials ignored the rapid spread of Covid after an employee brought it into the prison. Within weeks, half of the prisoners, who tend to be elderly and have pre-existing conditions, were infected. The death rate was more than three times that of society in general. And in the meantime, of the 256 prisoners who applied for compassionate release, only five releases were granted. Another 10 of those died of Covid while still incarcerated.
  • At the federal prison in Lompoc, CA, two guards introduced Covid to the inmate population. Three months later, in July 2020, more than 1,000 of the 1,750 prisoners had been infected. Even after Attorney General William Barr had ordered the BOP to make “liberal use” of home confinement because of the pandemic, only 34 prisoners were sent home from Lompoc.
  • Even earlier, on April 3, 2020, Barr ordered Carvajal to “move with dispatch” to release prisoners from the federal prison at Elkton, Ohio to home confinement because of the quickness with which Covid was spreading there. Not only did he fail to do so, but Carvajal defended against a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union demanding compassionate release for prisoners, losing in the federal District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.
  • The federal prison at Oakdale, LA has the indignity of being the “most Covid-infected” federal prison in America. Of its 2,400 prisoners, 23 died of Covid during the first two months of the disease’s spread. And of those 2,400 prisoners, only 80 were even given a Covid test.

As I said, the buck has to stop somewhere. In this case, it has to stop at the desk of Michael Carvajal. But it’s not right that Carvajal should just be fired. He should also be prosecuted. His failure to take action to protect prisoners from Covid constitutes depraved indifference: “Behavior so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes a crime.”

Carvajal belongs in prison.

Does anyone at the Justice Department have the guts to take that first step?

U.S. Department of Justice headquarters in Washington. (CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

9 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: The Scandal of US Prisons

  1. January 19, 2022 at 20:45

    John, Art R Here. Hope all’s well mate. You had to put up with a lot of BS from the BOP back in the day. At the same time they
    were scared shitless of your support on the out side. HaHa! They knew there was a red line.
    Glad to catch you online. Keep up the good work.

  2. January 19, 2022 at 20:21

    “There would be no bold, new programs, no new ideas for reducing recidivism, no move to train prisoners to lead productive lives outside of prison. There was nothing.”
    ~ John Kiriakou (“The Scandal of US Prisons,” Consortium News, January 18, 2022)

    With great respect Mr. Kiriakou: As you are probably aware, the United States has about 5% of the world’s population but about 25% of the world’s prison population. This is not a mere coincidence, but a symptom of the “American Prison Industrial Complex.”
    Prominent civil rights activist from the 1960’s and 70’s, Dr. Angela Davis, law professor Michelle Alexander, and other scholars have spoken out for many years about the American Prison Industrial Complex and the persistent, structural INCENTIVES behind this system that makes it resistant to meaningful change. One of the reasons is because the largest beneficiary of the American Prison Industrial Complex– both as individuals and as a social group– are Cops Thus, powerful and influential LEO/CO Labor Union Groups– Law Enforcement and Corrections Officers’ Labor Unions– mount direct and indirect attacks (in the Political, Media, Social, and Legal Domains) on any federal and state level meaningful efforts. Thank you Sir, for writing this article that deserves to be in the front pages of the NY Times or the Washington Post– given the horrendous state, in general, of nationwide American Prison and Jail systems.

  3. val
    January 19, 2022 at 16:49

    I don’t know how many departments there under the gov’t but it would be really cool to devote an issue to each department and it failing, similar to this article.
    Some of the US Departments but some are operated under others, like the dept of homeland security gooes under the
    dept of defense right? and doesn’t the dept of commerce also go under the dept of defense?
    Social Security goes under the Treasury and maybe social security is probably the best run gov’t agency but like gov’t agency
    there is some waste and fraud. What Dept does Fauci work under is that Health and Human Services?
    Your article is so clear about the prison problems, more can be said but thanks for keeping us informed.

  4. January 19, 2022 at 04:56

    Thank you John for another reminder, another reason, as proof here for Julian Defence to argue once more the point made by DoJ on the basis of *assurances” that his life wouldn’t be put at risk, something Magistrate Baraitser also foresaw in a way, accurately describing US Prisons, when she said would be ” too oppressive”. such cases described here are most alarming, a red flag, where a corrupt warden was handling prisoners in most inhuman ways, brutal torture causing immense suffering. This is definitely ” too oppressive” for Julian; extradition must not proceed. #dropthecharges #abandonthecase

  5. Mike Maddden
    January 18, 2022 at 18:15

    Yet, Ian Duncan Burnett, Baron Burnett of Maldon PC, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, took U.S. assurances that Julian Assange would not be mistreated in U.S. prisons as “solemn undertakings by one government to another”.

    More like “solemn undertakers” if you ask me.

    Thank you for this article John Kiriakou. I’m outraged all over again every time I’m reminded that you spent even one minute behind bars. I will never forget your courageous service to the people.

  6. Jean Maria Arrigo
    January 18, 2022 at 18:01

    From a background of many years of prison visits and prison correspondence, I send gratitude for your clear institutional assessment of criminal managerial neglect of the prisoner lives under Mr. Carvajal’s jurisdiction. If he is not prosecuted, prisoners will rightly become more cynical about the judiciary, and subsequent administrators will feel empowered in wrongdoing.

    Decent human beings feel for the bitterness, desolation, helplessness, and terror of prisoners left to die in their cells from infectious diseases without medical assistance. Who are the people who appointed Carvajal to his position and let him continue as conditions worsened? They should not be afforded immunity.

    • evelync
      January 19, 2022 at 14:40

      Thank you Jean Maria Arrig0 for your work visiting prison and fighting against torture and for ethics in psychology.

      Re:”Who are the people who appointed Carvajal to his position and let him continue as conditions worsened?”

      Why, they are the same people who work in our military/ intelligence/justice machine who promote ass kissing, career chasing, sociopathic, star seeking, power hungry bureaucrats who mindlessly commit war crimes and punish the whistleblowers on their way up the ladder.
      A corrupt politicized machine that serves the heartless, PSEUDO capitalist, hegemonic axis of evil, the elite profiteers in the MIC, banking, and the rest who drive this country along with their “first world” sister countries. It’s rooted in White Supremacy from the beginning. WE KNOW. WE DESERVE. WE GET. no matter the cost to others or the planet on which they live too.

  7. Sam F
    January 18, 2022 at 13:28

    DOJ has neither the courage nor the moral integrity to do anything that doesn’t pay.

    They completely ignored my pleas that they investigate political racketeering by Repub politicians in Florida, even after mailing full packages of evidence and legal argument to their local, DC, and OIG offices several times over three years, under both Repub and Dem administrations. I am now suing them directly as a branch of the racketeering operation, and the judiciary are faking up excuses not to request that they investigate the politicians. But of course we have no way to sue the judiciary, a major defect in the Constitution.

    The problem is that the top levels of executive agencies are political party crooks installed by politicians, and the rest are afraid to lose their careers under the present or future administrations, if they investigate any political party racketeering.

    This is simply very poor design of government structure, of, by, and for a very amoral population.

    • evelync
      January 19, 2022 at 15:17

      Thank you for your work Sam F on behalf of our democracy. I’m grateful to you for your legal battles to expose the crooks and have them held accountable.
      Too bad those who “serve” in our “justice system” are either corrupt themselves or just scared to stand up to the crooks in power in order to protect the victims of the corrupt for profit enterprise.

      $trillions on catastrophic wars.

      They ask “how could Donald Trump become president?”

      Too many people are discouraged by the corruption and the wars and dysfunction. They were ripe to be taken by an expert con artist who preyed on their disillusionment, ready to blame scapegoats to account for their economic hardships perhaps.

      This mess brings out the worst in people.

      Thank you. I hope you are successful in court.

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