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People in the Scandal-Plagued Federal Prison System Reveal What They Need in a New Director

“This is kind of like AA: To move forward, first you have to admit there’s a problem.”

After less than two years on the job, the embattled director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Michael Carvajal, abruptly announced his retirement last week — a move that sparked celebration from prisoners and staff alike.

Though Carvajal successfully rose through the agency over the course of three decades, his tenure at the top was marked by crisis and scandal. One month after his appointment, the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping through federal prisons, and Carvajal came under fire for the BOP’s poor response. In the months that followed, the prison system was plagued by prisoner deaths, staff arrests, sex abuse scandals, escapes and a severe staffing shortage.

Late last year, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois began calling for Carvajal’s termination after an Associated Press investigation found that dozens of federal prison workers had been arrested for crimes including bribery, theft, sexual assault and murder. Weeks later, Carvajal turned in his resignation to Attorney General Merrick Garland.

To many, Carvajal’s departure signals a chance to transform the troubled agency — but whether that happens will depend on who replaces him. The role doesn’t require Senate confirmation, so now officials and policymakers in Washington are grappling with the question of who they want to run the nation’s biggest prison system.

One set of stakeholders probably won’t get much say in the process: the incarcerated people themselves. Over the past week, The Marshall Project asked half a dozen — as well as a prison worker — what they’d like to see in a new head of the system. Their interviews, conducted on the phone and via email, have been edited for length and clarity. Some people asked that their names or certain identifying details be withheld for fear of retaliation. Responses from the Bureau of Prisons are at the end of the article.

Corita Burnett, 48, is imprisoned at the low-security women’s Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Waseca, Minnesota. The prison warden and a federal court both denied her request for compassionate release during the pandemic despite her heart problems, obesity, sleep apnea and diabetes.

I turned myself in on Dec. 3, 2019, for abetting a bank robbery. I had no idea I was walking into a world of sex scandals, violence, corruption, drug abuse, understaffing, suicides, abuses of power and then COVID.

COVID-19 is never going away. Neither is overcrowding. Staff need to be required to take a rapid test before entering the building, whether they are vaccinated or not, as we all know vaccinated people can still carry and spread COVID.

Also, I would like to see better medical care. Waseca’s health services are understaffed, and we have third-party contractors who do not know what they are doing, or are working for BOP because it’s their last chance to practice medicine.

The new BOP director — whether it's a woman or man — needs to be honest and remember that being a prisoner doesn't mean we are the scum of the earth. Treat us like you would want someone to treat your loved ones or, most importantly, yourself.

Benjamin Freedland, 38, has been in prison for a little over six years for trafficking marijuana. He’s currently at FCI Marianna in Florida, and is scheduled to be released in less than a month.

With a new director, I’d like to see that there is accountability for the things that happened under the old director’s tenure. To begin with, there’s been an epidemic of the drug K2 in the BOP, and it’s gone unchecked. There’s people overdosing at prisons across the country, and it’s overwhelmed the healthcare system. It’s fucking crazy. It’s gotten to the point where it’s just accepted because they can’t do anything about it.

I saw a friend die due to drugs when I was in prison at Butner. His name was Shanti and he died by suicide when he was high.

A new director could redirect funds to drug treatment instead of punishment in solitary confinement. Instead of giving us physical mail that could be soaked in K2, they could make photocopies and distribute those. They should also prosecute employees that bring drugs in instead of just firing them.

I’m leaving prison in 25 days, but I have a lot of people in here that I care about, and it affects them. It’s disheartening to see these overdoses. I want it to end.

Rachel Padgett, 39, has been in prison on drug conspiracy charges since 2015, through three BOP directors. Over the four years that she has been imprisoned in Tallahassee, Florida, the facility has grappled with a hurricane, a pandemic and a series of arrests and lawsuits related to guards sexually abusing prisoners.

This is kind of like AA: To move forward, first you have to admit there’s a problem. A new director needs to believe that holding hundreds of thousands of nonviolent federal prisoners in dangerously understaffed prisons for unnecessarily long periods of time is wrong.

We need a director who believes that prisoners can be rehabilitated. We're not all bad. Everything doesn't have to be about making us miserable or uncomfortable. It seems [the Bureau of Prisons goes] the extra mile to ensure there is no happiness or comfort in prison because they don't want to give the impression that they're being soft on crime.

Finally, all executive staff in charge of running this shitshow need to resign. It's full of greed and corruption at every level.

Anonymous went to prison in 2019 and has spent the last two years at FCI Oakdale, a low security facility in Louisiana. Early in the pandemic, prison officials approved him for release on home confinement but rescinded that approval days later, after the agency abruptly changed eligibility requirements. He has since survived several months of lockdowns and multiple COVID-19 outbreaks.

I would like to get a new director who knows that mass incarceration doesn't work and wants to actually help make the system better. Accountability needs to be paramount. Inspections and walk-throughs at my facility are done by current or former BOP workers, and nothing really gets accomplished.

The new BOP director should also look into reimplementing a parole system or something similar to reduce the population in prison. But I know the BOP is a big employer. They build prisons in areas that are poor or isolated and then employ a lot of people. If they release inmates, they would need to reduce staff, so it's in their best interest to keep as many of us incarcerated as possible.

Rhonda Fleming, 56, is also at the women’s prison in Tallahassee, serving a 30-year sentence for fraud and money laundering. She caught COVID-19 last fall — just after food-service workers at her facility were infected. Fleming was hospitalized for two weeks, after being repeatedly denied transfer to home confinement or compassionate release.

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I hope the new director will get control of the virus. Right now, inmates here and at other federal prisons are sleeping within inches of each other, head-to-head. Any health expert would agree that this is dangerous during a pandemic. There should be no more open dorms, with two to four inmates sharing cubicles.

Also, there needs to be some type of inmate-powered oversight group — maybe former and present inmates — who can report inefficiencies and staff misconduct like sexual abuse without retaliation. This would save money and lead to the prisons being run more safely and efficiently.

Derek Smith, 35, is a prisoner at a medium security prison in Forrest City, Arkansas. He’s been incarcerated since 2019 on a fraud-related charge.

We need someone who is going to improve healthcare and food and push rehabilitative programming instead of fighting us inmates on every front.

Plus, we have plumbing problems; I can't tell you the last time I took a hot shower. I have sent emails to the facilities department and spoken to the associate warden about the issue, and the response I got was that they were more worried about the sewage that has been running across the campus. But a new director could just set higher standards for maintenance, and higher standards for employees here in general.

Aaron McGlothin has been working in the federal prison system for 15 years, at facilities from Texas to California. Currently, he’s the union president at the prison in Mendota, California.

I’ve never seen morale as low as it is. We need to hit the reset button. First of all, we want enough people to be fully staffed. When we are short-staffed, workers get reassigned and their actual jobs don’t get done. So whether you’re a teacher, plumber, vocational instructor or warehouse worker, you’re being utilized as a correctional officer. There’s nobody there teaching classes, there’s nobody there doing the plumbing. There’s no one doing the laundry.

We also need to make our pay competitive with other law enforcement agencies, so we can recruit and retain people. Carvajal put out a directive to use as little overtime as possible throughout the agency, so that’s why they keep using other staff as corrections officers. But we really need to focus [cost-cutting] on [executives’] bonus money.

A new director would give a lot of people hope that we’ll be able to move forward.

When asked for comment on the allegations in this story, Bureau of Prisons spokespeople said that the Waseca prison has “an ample number of trained medical personnel and professional health care providers to practice evidence-based medicine.”

The bureau declined to comment on the allegedly drug-related death that Benjamin Freedland described, citing “privacy, safety, and security reasons.” The bureau did not respond to questions about plumbing and hot water issues at FCI Forrest City, or Carvajal’s directive on overtime use.

Update: Hours after publication, a BOP spokesperson confirmed that there have been sewage and hot water problems at FCI Forrest City, and said that affected prisoners were evacuated, the issues addressed, and a portable shower system deployed.

Regarding Carvajal's directive, the agency stated that it "does not comment on internal correspondence" but that it embarked on an "unprecedented hiring initiative" in March 2021 that brought in over 2,000 new employees and is "actively seeking to fill vacant positions."

Keri Blakinger Twitter Email is a former staff writer whose work focuses on prisons and jails. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the organization's first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her memoir, "Corrections in Ink", came out in June 2022.