WASHINGTON — The outgoing director of the Bureau of Prisons has been subpoenaed to testify before a Senate committee examining abuse and corruption in the beleaguered federal agency.
Michael Carvajal was served a subpoena to appear at a hearing later this month. The subpoena was announced Monday by Sen. Jon Ossoff, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The committee’s subpoena follows an investigation by The Associated Press exposing systemic issues in the agency, including widespread criminal activity by staff and rampant sexual assault at a women’s prison in California.
The Justice Department announced last week it was replacing Carvajal with Colette Peters, the director of Oregon’s prison system. That announcement came about seven months after Carvajal submitted his resignation amid mounting pressure from Congress after the AP’s investigation.
Though Carvajal is a holdover from the Trump administration, the issuance of the subpoena to compel him to appear before the Senate panel is rare, in part because Democrats have control of both the Senate and the White House. The decision to issue a subpoena exemplifies the lengths members of Congress and congressional investigators are going to bring additional oversight to the embattled agency that has long skirted intense public attention.
Ossoff and Sen. Ron Johnson, the committee’s top Republican, said the subpoena was issued after the Justice Department refused to make Carvajal available to testify voluntarily.
In a statement, the Justice Department said it was disappointed that Ossoff issued the subpoena and said officials had cooperated extensively with the subcommittee’s work and had offered to provide a lower-level official in Carvajal’s place.
The department said it was “committed to focusing” Carvajal’s last days on preparing for Peters to take over and said having him prepare for a congressional hearing days before Peters takes control of the agency would be distracting.
“As the Department has previously explained to the Subcommittee, we believe that preparation for testimony just five business days before this critical leadership transition may distract Director Carvajal’s time and attention away from this goal,” the Justice Department’s statement said. “Nevertheless, we continue to work with the Subcommittee to find an agreeable solution.”
Carvajal has been at the center of myriad crises within the federal prison system. His tumultuous tenure included the rampant spread of coronavirus inside federal prisons, a failed response to the pandemic, dozens of escapes, deaths and critically low staffing levels that have hampered responses to emergencies.
The committee’s investigation has included examination of abuse, misconduct and corruption both at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta — Ossoff’s home state — and more broadly in the federal prison system.
“To date, the Subcommittee has been provided no legal basis that would prevent Director Carvajal’s testimony before the Subcommittee, and the Department of Justice continues to refuse to make him available to testify,” Ossoff and Johnson said in a joint statement.
The Biden administration had faced increasing pressure to remove Carvajal and do more to fix the federal prison system after President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to push criminal justice reforms. The Bureau of Prisons is one of the largest Justice Department agencies, budgeted for around 37,500 employees and over 150,000 federal prisoners. It has an annual budget of around $8 billion.
Peters is set to take over the agency in August.