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Bureau of Prisons director to resign after scandal-plagued tenure during pandemic

Michael Carvajal, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in June 2020 examining issues facing prisons and jails during the coronavirus pandemic. (Tom Williams/AP)
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Michael Carvajal, the director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons whose tenure at the agency was marred by scandals and pandemic-induced struggles, will resign after nearly two years in the top position, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, Kristie Breshears, said in a statement that Carvajal would retire after 30 years at the agency and will “remain in his role until a new Director is appointed.”

A spokesman for the Justice Department, Anthony Coley, said in a statement: “We are very appreciative of Director Carvajal’s service to the department over the last three decades. His operational experience and intimate knowledge of the Bureau of Prisons — the department’s largest component — helped steer it during critical times, including during this historic pandemic.”

Carvajal, who began his career in 1992 as a correctional officer at a prison in Texas, rose to the agency’s top post in February 2020 after he was appointed by the Trump administration’s attorney general, William P. Barr.

But during his time as director, he faced scrutiny over myriad issues within the agency, including its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. With Carvajal presiding over the agency for effectively the entirety of the pandemic so far, about one in three Bureau of Prisons inmates has tested positive for the virus, according to agency data, a rate nearly double that of the general U.S. population. Seven bureau workers and 275 inmates had died of covid-19 as of Wednesday.

In November, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to fire Carvajal after an investigation by the Associated Press found that the Bureau of Prisons was a “hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption [that] has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct.” The AP investigation included examples of a prison warden charged with sexual abuse, another charged with murder and allegations of workers taking cash bribes to smuggle drugs and weapons.

Durbin, noting that Carvajal was a leftover Trump administration appointee, said in a statement that “we have a new Administration and a new opportunity to reform our criminal justice system. It’s clear that there is much going wrong in our federal prisons, and we urgently need to fix it.”

Analysis: Lawbreakers in federal prisons include prison staff, report finds; senators demand accountability

The Biden administration had for months been weighing whether to oust Carvajal; the AP reported in June that administration officials had discussed his removal.

The Washington Post reported in June that federal inmates were keeping millions of dollars in accounts overseen by the Bureau of Prisons that were being used to shelter money, shielding it from being seized for child support, alimony or other court-ordered debts. More than $3 million of the $100 million in federal inmate accounts at the time was held by around 20 inmates, one of whom held more than $250,000 in his account.

Law enforcement officials expressed concern that the practice posed significant risks for money laundering and corruption, but that the Bureau of Prisons had long resisted efforts to change it. A bipartisan group of senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to Carvajal following the Post report, calling the circumstances “deeply concerning.”

Durbin said in a tweet Wednesday evening that Carvajal’s resignation was “an opportunity for new, reform-minded leadership” at the agency, where he said Carvajal had “failed to address the mounting crises in our nation’s federal prison system.”