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Sen. Ossoff Leads Drive Against 'Disgraceful' Prison Conditions

Jon Ossoff, a 35-year-old first-term Democratic senator from Georgia, uses lessons from Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), his former boss and mentor who died in 2020, to expose disgraceful conditions in prisons and detention facilities. Ossoff’s lessons from his internship with Lewis propelled four Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearings Ossoff chaired into Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) incarceration practices, reports the Washington Post. Those conditions prompted four subcommittee investigations beginning in May 2021, and hearings that were notable for bipartisan cooperation. Ossoff scored a legislative victory when his Prison Camera Reform Act was signed by President Biden in December. It requires the BOP to improve outdated and broken security camera systems and to maintain video evidence of misconduct by inmates and staff, including negligent, abusive, and criminal behavior. Three other bipartisan bills were introduced: The Federal Prison Oversight Act would require the Justice Department’s inspector general to inspect federal prisons, make recommendations, and assign each a “risk score” based on various factors. The Family Notification of Death, Injury, or Illness in Custody Act would set family notification procedures when an incarcerated person dies in federal custody. The Federal Prisons Accountability Act, co-sponsored with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and others, would make the BOP director a presidential appointee with Senate consent, instead of an attorney general selection.

A July hearing on corruption, abuse, and misconduct at the BOP’s Atlanta prison revealed “a facility where inmates, including presumptively innocent pretrial detainees, were denied proper nutrition, access to clean drinking water, and hygiene products; lacked access to medical care; endured months of lockdowns with limited or no access to the outdoors or basic services; and had rats and roaches in their food and cells,” Ossoff said. Conditions and staff behavior were so lax that Atlanta had more suicides than any other federal prison from 2016 to 2021. A September hearing on uncounted deaths in prisons included the release of a Government Accountability Office report criticizing DOJ lapses that contributed to states not reporting nearly 1,000 in-custody deaths as federal law requires. A November hearing condemned the “Medical Mistreatment of Women in ICE Detention.” Women in Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center were subjected by a government contract doctor “to excessive, invasive, and often unnecessary gynecological surgeries and procedures, with repeated failures to obtain informed medical consent,” Ossoff said. ICE Assistant Director Stewart Smith said its review “did not find evidence of any forced medical procedures.” Nonetheless, it stopped sending female detainees to the detention center in November 2021 and ceased operations there in September 2021. A December hearing highlighted the “Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates in Federal Prisons.” The findings, Ossoff said, demonstrate “that the BOP is failing systemically to prevent, detect, and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees,” including top officials.


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