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Atlanta Federal Prison Gets Another Reboot

by Chuck Sharman

Thirty years since its last reboot, the troubled U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta has gotten another one, after violence and corruption led the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to transfer most prisoners elsewhere in late 2021. [See: PLN, Jan. 2022, p.22.]

The lockup is still designated a federal “penitentiary,” though it hasn’t held any high-security federal prisoners in over 30 years. Until 2021, the crumbling main facility – it dates to 1902 – held medium-security prisoners, with an adjacent work camp for low-security prisoners to come and go more easily to work assignments.

The main building now holds only low-security prisoners. But that didn’t stop U.S. Senators on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee from grilling outgoing BOP Director Michael Carvajal in July 2022 about a litany of problems at the lockup, including multiple escapes, as well as lawsuits resulting in payouts for prisoners who were sexually abused by guards or with restraints. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.17; Aug. 2014, p.42; and Dec. 28, 2017, online.]

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) accused Carvajal of “continuing to drive responsibility down the chain of command” for “gross misconduct” that had by then “persisted at this prison for at least nine years.”

The following month, Pres. Morell Huguley of Local 1145 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing prison staffers, pushed back on those criticisms, saying they unfairly tarred his members with a brush wielded by BOP managers.

The next month, in September 2022, Carvajal was replaced with new BOP Director Collette Peters. [See: PLN, Feb. 2023, p.10.] Ossoff toured the lockup in late October 2022, allowing that he saw “early indications of more competent management.”

But the month after that, when Tiger King reality TV show star Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage arrived – to begin serving a sentence for ordering a hit on an animal rights activist – he announced: “I have officially landed at the bottom of hell.”

The prison’s latest reboot took another hit on June 13, 2023, when former guard Justin Newkirk, 35, was indicted on charges he pepper-sprayed a compliant prisoner in March 2022 and then lied about it in a false incident report. See: United States v. Newkirk, USDC (N.D.Ga.), Case No. 1:23-cr-00207.

Additional sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Intercept, WXIA