By Christopher Zoukis
The soon-to-depart chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says the panel will investigate how the Federal Bureau of Prisons has handled what he terms “egregious” misconduct at the U.S. Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida, the largest government-run detention facility.
In Mid-May, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) sent letters to both the BOP and the FBI announcing the planned probe, which cited press accounts about the Coleman facility in The Washington Post and USA Today. The Post, in recounting the criminal career of Antwon Pitt, a local man sent to Coleman for 24 months on a robbery conviction, noted Pitt “repeatedly harassed and threatened” staffers there, claiming he would rape and murder them. Pitt was not prosecuted for his misconduct while incarcerated there, and Chaffetz’s letter noted it was unclear whether the BOP ever informed Washington, DC officials supervising Pitt after his release about his actions while at Coleman. Soon after Pitt’s release and return to Washington, he was convicted of breaking into a residence and raping a woman living there.
Chaffetz’s letter also drew from recent USA Today reporting of the BOP’s having paid more than $2 million in bonuses to BOP administrators over the past three years, including tens of thousands of dollars to top Coleman administrators during the period when Pitt was incarcerated there, and while the sexual harassment episodes were allegedly occurring that later produced a now-pending $20 million federal class-action settlement for the inmate harassment and mistreatment of hundreds of present and former Coleman staff.
The panel chairman observed the BOP continued to award bonuses to top managers at Coleman during the time that allegations in that case were made against inmates at the facility for harassing corrections staff there. Four of the BOP’s largest bonus payments went to Coleman officials. Its warden at the time, Tamyra Jarvis, collected $34,000 in bonus payments. Now retired from BOP, she is director of Florida’s Escambia County Jail. The bonus payments to Coleman administrators have also been sharply criticized by prison employee union officials.
The House Oversight Committee has asked for documents related to both controversies. It’s reportedly seeking reports on inmate Pitt’s misconduct while at Coleman, plus any other documents providing details on what the BOP and Coleman officials did or did not communicate to Washington, DC supervisors of released inmates, as well as documentation on BOP bonus and incentive payments during a four-year period.
Even before sending his letters to BOP and the FBI, Chaffetz was sending signals he would not remain in Congress for long, however. In mid-April, Chaffetz announced he would not run for another House term in 2018, then soon thereafter announced he would not serve out his current House term, his fourth. More recently, he announced that he’ll leave Congress June 30.
So it will largely be up to the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee—Reps. Trey Gowdy (SC) and Jim Jordan (OH) are the most prominently mentioned potential replacements—to decide how much time and attention that panel will devote to the issue of BOP management and bonuses. The House Republican Steering Committee will choose Chaffetz’s successor on June 5.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.