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Extreme Conditions in Atlanta Prison Reflect Larger Issues in US Prisons

Widespread drug abuse, substandard medical and mental health care, out-of-control violence and horrific sanitary conditions are rampant at a federal prison in Atlanta, a new congressional investigation into the federal Bureau of Prisons has found, the New York Times reports. The problems plaguing the medium-security prison, which holds around 1,400 people, are so notorious within the federal government that its culture of indifference and mismanagement is derisively known among bureau employees as “the Atlanta way.”

But whistle-blowers, including two top prison officials, documented the depth of dysfunction at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, describing dozens of violent episodes — and the systematic effort to downplay and cover up the crisis — over the past few years.

The conditions at the prison, while extreme, reflect wider problems in the bureau’s sprawling network of 122 facilities housing about 158,000 inmates. The system has suffered from chronic overcrowding, staffing shortages, corruption, sexual violence and a culture that often encourages senior officials to minimize the extent of the problems. Conditions were especially bad in the section of the prison that serves as a holding center for pretrial detainees who have not been convicted of crimes, according to witnesses.

In 2019, the House Subcommittee on National Security found that misconduct was widespread, tolerated and routinely covered up or ignored, including among senior officials. A permissive environment often made lower-ranking employees susceptible to abuse, including sexual assault and harassment, by prisoners and staff members, according to the report.

The dining hall, a witness recalled, was so filthy and run down that the staff was forced to violate security protocols by opening the doors to allow feral cats to hunt rats scurrying around the floors. Later, when officials searched inmates for cellphones, banned because they can be used to order drugs or call in hits on gang rivals, 700 were found, approximately one illegal phone for every two inmates.

Erika Ramirez, who served as the chief psychologist at the penitentiary from 2018 to 2021, said prisoners were deprived of access to mental health services, allowed to obtain a wide range of illicit drugs and left without basic amenities, like warm clothing and blankets.


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