John Kiriakou Justice Prisoners' Rights

The Scandal of U.S. 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 / 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’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?

John Kiriakou

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.


  1. Criminals. The entire landscape of capitalism. If there is a dollar to be made, then take auntie’s blood and dad’s life. Every blinking, sitting, defecating, sweating, eating, sleeping, learning (sic), on life support systems second, the shekel lovers and their armies of Eichmann’s are busy beavers (not to insult those amazing creatures).


    The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.

    Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by oppressed communities that make demands for self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.

    From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.

    Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

    1. stupidity
      per capita USA has the most violent crime, non-violent crime rape per capita all nations, despite that experts claim many are not reported…as Boorstin observes americans can only feel through violence, if at all…per most recent IPSOS/Reuters only 15% US adults believe torture is never justified

  2. We need people like the author of this article in our government but I wonder would they too, be assassinated by their former colleagues? This country is secretly much more nasty than we know or is let on by those who do know. I am so sorry you were sent to prison but glad they didn’t murder you too. And I applaud your bravery and your story. Yours and others belong in our history books so we can look back and say, this is the founding father’s democracy and this is what they did to moral, ethical people. You and Assange and others will attest and confirm a new world that embodies the promise of democracy. Pockets of heroes and heroines across our nation who stood up, got slapped down, and stood up again. Glad to see we are all still standing.. We must find each other. I worry for Kshama Sawant and hope she is well protected. Defeated the Goliath, Amazon four times. Great educational conversation. I’d like to see her become president but it’s not likely with the tetra ethylene that rains down daily on my Section 8 housing complex from small planes at low altitudes. Of course I’m doing something other than complaining. I’m here to protect them, particularly the children of the poor who are highly susceptible to even small amounts of lead. This happens all over our country. No wonder the poor are considered stupid; they are made so with the so many airports, like other toxic enterprises, and their targeted neighborhoods. They have that smell of mendacity and a tinge of evil. EPA been sitting on the problem for years.

    1. those that have examined the american national character—Margaret mead, Geoffrey gorer, Daniel boorstin, David Riesman, Richard sennet, Christopher Lasch, etc describe americans as “mean and bitter”. Charles Taylor describes americans as “the most dissatisfied people on earth”

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