The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate prison system inquiry reveals ‘national disgrace,’ Ossoff says

The Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
6 min

The Senate’s extensive yet largely overlooked investigations into the abuse suffered by federally incarcerated people was sparked when 16-year-old Jon Ossoff asked a civil rights crusader for a job.

Now a 35-year-old first-term Democratic senator from Georgia, Ossoff uses lessons from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), his former boss and mentor who died in 2020, to expose disgraceful conditions in the nation’s prisons and detention facilities.

Ossoff’s lessons from his internship with Lewis propelled four Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearings Ossoff chaired over recent months into Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) incarceration practices that should be un-American.

“I’m appalled by the disgraceful conditions in prisons and jails at all levels across our country,” Ossoff said last week in his Russell Senate Office Building suite, sitting in front of a prominent picture of Lewis. “It is a national disgrace and a betrayal of a founding principle embedded in our Bill of Rights, the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”

Describing Lewis’s ability to “radiate” empathy, Ossoff said, “I try to remain grounded in his values as I serve, and I know that he viewed as a moral failure the conditions of incarceration in the United States.”

Those conditions prompted four subcommittee investigations beginning in May 2021, and four hearings that were notable for bipartisan cooperation — on what could have been contentious immigration and law and order issues — with Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.), the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.

• The 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 in his opening statement. Conditions and staff behavior were so lax that Atlanta had more suicides than any other federal prison from 2016 to 2021.

• The September hearing on uncounted deaths in America’s prison facilities included release of a Government Accountability Office report criticizing Justice Department lapses that contributed to states not reporting nearly 1,000 in-custody deaths as federal law requires. “Despite a clear charge from Congress to determine who is dying in prisons and jails across the country, where they are dying, and why they are dying, the Department of Justice is failing to do so,” Ossoff said at the time. “This failure undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis ongoing behind bars across the country.”

• The November hearing condemned, as its title said, the “Medical Mistreatment of Women in ICE Detention.” Its findings were so horrifying that Ossoff warned the audience in his first sentence, after calling the session to order, about its “deeply distressing” nature. Women in ICE detention 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 after his warning. The hearing’s findings were among “the most nightmarish and disgraceful” the panel uncovered during its investigations, Ossoff said. At the hearing, ICE Assistant Director Stewart D. Smith said the agency’s health program “undergoes extraordinary scrutiny,” but after learning of allegations in September 2020, its review “did not find evidence of any forced medical procedures.” Nonetheless, it stopped sending female detainees to the detention center that November and ceased operations there in September 2021.

• The 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. The former warden and chaplain at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., were convicted last year on sex abuse charges.

During an interview with The Washington Post, Ossoff emphasized that his concerns are not limited to the men and women who have been victimized while inside federal facilities, pointing to “outside criminal enterprises being run from within the prison” in Atlanta.

“When you’ve got corruption and misconduct and massive security failures and contraband flowing in and out and escapes that are routine, the whole community is at risk,” Ossoff said. “The conditions inside impact the safety of communities and families outside. So, it’s a public safety imperative and a crime fighting imperative that these facilities be professionally run.”

In addition to the exposures his hearings provided, Ossoff scored a legislative victory when his Prison Camera Reform Act was signed by President Biden in late 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.

Beyond legislation, “I also wanted to focus unprecedented Senate attention on this issue because no one else has,” he said. “I guess because there's not any clear political upside. But this is a human rights crisis that is ongoing behind bars in the United States. Folks deserve to serve their time, but not to face rape, abuse, corruption, medical mistreatment.”

That focus includes three additional bipartisan bills he co-introduced:

• The Federal Prison Oversight Act would require the Justice Department’s inspector general to inspect the BOP’s 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 Senate 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.

Citing “a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse of any kind” in statement to The Post, the BOP said that “we believe that holding staff accountable, to the fullest extent of the law, will serve as a deterrent against future misconduct by staff.”

During the interview, Ossoff described the BOP as a “diseased bureaucracy,” although he expressed confidence in Director Colette S. Peters, who took office in August.

Ossoff isn’t done yet.

“It’s likely that I will sustain these oversight efforts,” he said, “and hold more hearings on these subject this Congress.”