WASHINGTON – The federal Bureau of Prisons is keeping its former director on the payroll as an adviser to his successor, rewarding him with an influential new role after concerns about his leadership — including from staff, inmates, Congress and the Biden administration — hastened his exit from the top job.
Michael Carvajal, who submitted his resignation in January but was not replaced until Tuesday, will stay on through the end of the month as a senior adviser to the new director, Colette Peters, agency spokesperson Kristie Breshears told The Associated Press.
Peters, who was the state prisons chief in Oregon, has pledged to overhaul the federal agency, which was plagued by myriad problems during Carvajal’s two years in charge.
Critics say that retaining Carvajal, even for a few weeks, could slow that progress.
Some people involved in the federal prison system say Carvajal lacks credibility and that the decision to let him stay on sends mixed signals about the direction of the agency at a pivotal time. Staffing shortages have hampered operations at some of the agency’s 122 facilities and there is continued fallout from staff misconduct, including the sexual abuse of inmates at a women’s prison in California.
“That is unbelievable. Why would we keep an individual that has left this agency in ruins, and who refuses to take ownership of failures of his administration, from staffing to COVID?" said Jose Rojas, a leader in the federal correctional officers’ union. "What a sad state of affairs."
Peters has pledged greater transparency and accountability for the Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest component with a budget of more than $8 billion. At the same time, with Carvajal as a senior adviser, she is being counseled by an official roundly criticized on Capitol Hill for falling short in those regards.
Carvajal submitted his resignation on Jan. 5 amid increasing scrutiny over his leadership in the wake of Associated Press reporting that uncovered widespread problems at the Bureau of Prisons, including rampant staff criminal conduct, dozens of escapes, deaths and staffing woes hampering responses to emergencies.
Carvajal’s departure wasn’t immediate. He and the Justice Department agreed for him to stay on until a successor was in place — a search process that carried on into the summer as the Biden administration struggled to find a candidate qualified and willing to take on the agency’s challenges.
Among the pressure Carvajal faced before resigning: The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., demanded his firing last November after the AP revealed that more than 100 Bureau of Prisons workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019.
Administration officials also had discussions about whether to remove Carvajal in the spring of 2021, after the AP reported that widespread correctional officer vacancies were forcing prisons to expand the use of cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates.
In one of his final acts as director, Carvajal clashed with senators at a hearing last week as he refused to accept responsibility for a culture of corruption and misconduct that has plagued his agency for years.
Carvajal, testifying before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, insisted he had been shielded from problems by his underlings. But he had been copied on emails, and some of the troubles were detailed in reports generated by the agency’s headquarters.
Carvajal blamed the size and structure of the Bureau of Prisons for his ignorance on issues such as inmate suicides, sexual abuse, and the free flow of drugs, weapons and other contraband.
“This is a very large and complex organization,” Carvajal told the panel, led by Sens. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. and Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
Peters, sworn in Tuesday by Attorney General Merrick Garland, said she was “humbled, honored and proud to serve” in the position. She also welcomed congressional oversight, adding that she believes in “good government” and transparency.
Peters is only the second director in the agency’s history with no prior experience in the federal prisons system. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco led the search for the new director and had been looking for someone who was focused on reforming an agency that has had cultural issues for decades.
In an interview with the AP last month, Peters stressed the importance of working to “create an environment where people can feel comfortable coming forward and talking about misconduct.”