A Senate subcommittee led by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff shed light on conditions at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta during a hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Witnesses described “appalling” conditions to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on Tuesday including inoperable elevators, mold, broken air conditioning, overflowing sewers, free flow of contraband, and inmate suicides.  

In his opening statements, Ossoff quoted Federal Bureau of Prison officials who described the conditions.

“There was a lack of, and I quote, ‘regard for human life’ among staff,” Ossoff said. “And this is another direct quote from the BOP’s own investigations: ‘a dangerous and chaotic environment of hopelessness and helplessness, leaving inmates to their own means to improve their quality of life.’”

Terri Whitehead, a former jail administrator at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta, described a scene in which there were so many rats inside the facility that staff left doors open so stray cats could catch the rats — a policy violation that she said put staff, inmates and the local community in danger.

“It is never a good idea to leave prison doors open,” Whitehead said. “There was no professional pest control service in place because management officials could not work together and determine which departmental budget was responsible for the cost.”

Whitehead also described a culture that didn't invite change.

“If you go to Atlanta and you, per se, 'rock the boat' or you don’t go along with ‘the Atlanta Way,' then it can ruin your career,” Whitehead said.

The outgoing director of the Bureau of Prisons, Michael Carvajal, testified that he learned of the prison's conditions last year and at that point he took action by reducing the inmate population and removing dozens of managers. 

“I want to stress that what happened in Atlanta is unacceptable," Carvajal said in his opening statement. "We recognize the gravity of the alleged misconduct at that facility. And in July of 2021, we determined that it was in the best interest of the institution to take significant action.”

Despite the action, witnesses said the conditions within the prison are still bad.

Ossoff, who chairs the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and ranking member Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) grew frustrated with Carvajal’s testimony.

Several times, Carvajal referred to the size and structure of the Bureau of Prisons as the reason for not knowing about the conditions in U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta. Assistant directors at the headquarters level were responsible for implementing policies and procedures, he said.

"As director of the agency, I'm overall responsible," he said. "The buck stops with me."