Durbin: Prisons chief has 'no intention of reforming' system

FILE - Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, on Aug. 3, 2021. Durbin is lambasting the director of the beleaguered federal prison system, saying he has "no intention of reforming the institution." Durbin is also reiterating his call that Attorney General Merrick Garland immediately fire Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (J. Scott Applewhite, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee lambasted the director of the beleaguered federal prison system on Thursday, saying he has “no intention of reforming the institution” and reiterating his call for the director to be immediately fired.

Sen. Dick Durbin doubled down on his demand that Attorney General Merrick Garland remove Director Michael Carvajal, which came days after an Associated Press investigation that detailed serious misconduct involving federal correctional officers and revealed more than 100 Bureau of Prisons workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019.

“Since day one, Director Carvajal has shown no intention of reforming the institution,” Durbin said in a speech on the Senate floor. “For years, the Bureau of Prisons has been plagued by corruption, chronic understaffing, and misconduct by high-ranking officials.”

Under Carvajal’s leadership, the agency has experienced a multitude of crises, from the rampant spread of coronavirus inside prisons and a failed response to the pandemic to dozens of escapes, deaths and critically low staffing levels that have hampered responses to emergencies.

Durbin, D-Ill., initially called for Carvajal to be fired days after the AP's investigation into rampant criminal activity among employees, which found the agency has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct and has failed to suspend officers who themselves had been arrested for crimes. Two-thirds of the criminal cases against Justice Department personnel in recent years have involved federal prison workers, who account for less than one-third of the department’s workforce.

“It’s a recurring pattern of misconduct by officials within the Bureau of Prisons who believe they can abuse inmates and break the laws with impunity,” Durbin said.

Durbin also pointed to a series of recent violent incidents within the federal prison system, including an attack earlier this month at FCI Fort Dix, a low-security prison in Burlington County, New Jersey, that is run by the same warden who was in charge of a Manhattan federal jail when financier Jeffrey Epstein killed himself.

The 27-year-old inmate was attacked from behind and stabbed in the eyeball. The warden at Fort Dix, Lamine N’Diaye, was previously the warden at the Metropolitan Correctional Center and was removed from that position after Epstein killed himself at the jail in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

The Bureau of Prisons named N’Diaye as warden at Fort Dix in February despite an ongoing federal investigation into lapses that led to Epstein’s death and in direct contradiction of a public pronouncement that the agency would delay any move until the inquiry was finished. The bureau attempted to place N’Diaye in the Fort Dix job a year earlier, but the move was stopped by then-Attorney General William Barr after the AP reported the transfer.

The Justice Department’s inspector general has yet to complete the investigation.

Since the attack at Fort Dix, at least two other inmates have died in altercations at other federal prisons and at least two other inmates escaped from low-security prison camps in November. A 61-year-old man died after an altercation at USP Tucson in Arizona and a 32-year-old man was killed Sunday after a fight with another prisoner at USP Canaan in Waymart, Pennsylvania.

“In the nearly two years since Director Carvajal took control of the Bureau, he has failed to address the mounting crises in our nation’s federal prison system. It is far past time for new, reform-minded leadership in the Bureau of Prisons,” Durbin said Thursday.

Carvajal was appointed by Barr, but Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said recently that she still had confidence in him despite the many serious issues during his tenure.

A Justice Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Durbin's demand.

The AP reported in June that senior officials in the Biden administration had been weighing whether to oust Carvajal. He is one of the few remaining holdovers from the Trump administration.