U.S. Prisons Head Michael Carvajal Resigns Amid Scrutiny Over Troubled System

Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), announced his resignation after months of calls for him to resign due to the bureau's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, prison violence and internal issues with correctional officers.

The U.S. Department of Justice said Carvajal turned in his resignation to Attorney General Merrick Garland but that he will stay in the position until a replacement is chosen.

Among several controversies that made people like Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, call for his removal is a November report by the Associated Press that found over 100 BOP employees had been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since 2019.

The AP also found that the BOP ignored misconduct allegations against federal prison corrections officers.

Another issue plaguing Carvajal's leadership period, which began in February 2020, was a surge in COVID-19 cases inside of prisons. As of Wednesday, there were over 3,000 cases among inmates and prison employees, up from only about 500 in the middle of last month. About 266 federal inmates have died from the virus.

Additional controversies surrounding his time as director of the BOP include increased deaths in prison altercations, nearly 30 escapes and low staffing causing delayed emergency response.

"His resignation is an opportunity for new, reform-minded leadership at the Bureau of Prisons," Durbin said in a statement.

Michael Carvajal, Bureau of Prisons
Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, has resigned from the position but will continue in the role until a replacement is chosen. Above, Carvajal testifies at a hearing of the Judiciary Committee examining issues facing prisons and jails during the COVID-19 pandemic at the Capitol on June 2, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Tom Williams/Pool/Getty Images

The 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 the largest Justice Department agency, budgeted for around 37,500 employees and over 150,000 federal prisoners. Carvajal presided over an extraordinary time of increased federal executions and a pandemic that ravaged the system.

"We are very appreciative of Director Carvajal's service to the department over the last three decades," Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said in a statement. "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."

After the AP's story was published in November, Durbin demanded Carvajal's firing. Several congressional committees had also been looking into Carvajal and the Bureau of Prisons, questioning employees about misconduct allegations.

In his statement, Durbin said Carvajal "has failed to address the mounting crises in our nation's federal prison system, including failing to fully implement the landmark First Step Act," a bipartisan criminal justice measure passed during the Trump administration that was meant to improve prison programs and reduce sentencing disparities.

Carvajal, 54, was appointed director in February 2020 by then-Attorney General William Barr, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began raging in federal prisons nationwide, leaving tens of thousands of inmates infected with the virus and resulting in 266 deaths.

All but four BOP facilities are currently operating with drastic modifications because of the pandemic, with many suspending visiting.

Carvajal also oversaw an unprecedented run of federal executions in the waning months of the Trump presidency that were so poorly managed they became virus superspreader events.

Biden administration officials had discussions about whether to remove Carvajal in the spring, 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.

The agency's staffing levels reached a critical point under Carvajal, and officers at several facilities held protests calling for him to be fired. But Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said recently that she still had confidence in him.

Carvajal, an Army veteran, worked his way up the Bureau of Prisons ranks. He started as a correctional officer at a Texas federal prison in 1992 and was the warden of the federal prison complex in Pollock, Louisiana, before being promoted to regional director in 2016, assistant director in 2018 and director in 2020.

Carvajal's departure was celebrated by some of his own employees, who say the federal prison system suffered under his watch.

"Destructive actions by Carvajal have crippled this agency to the point of uncertainty, like a tornado leaving destruction behind," said Jose Rojas, a leader in the federal correctional officers' union. "He was a disgrace to our agency. Good riddance."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.