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AP’s investigation of federal prisons follows lame-duck agency head to notorious women’s prison

FILE - The Federal Correctional Institution is shown in Dublin, Calif., July 20, 2006. The Justice Department says it is gravely concerned about allegations that a high-ranking federal prison official entrusted to end sexual abuse and cover-ups at a women's prison may have taken steps to suppress a recent complaint about staff misconduct. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

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A combination of beat expertise and deep source reporting put Washington, D.C.’s Mike Balsamo and New York’s Mike Sisak literally on the trail of lame duck U.S. Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal as he visited a federal women’s prison in California, a visit arranged by Carvajal and agency officials after AP reporting revealed a culture of abuse and cover-ups at the facility — dubbed the “rape club” by many who know it.

Sources tipped Balsamo and Sisak that Carvajal, who had submitted his resignation earlier this year, was heading to the Federal Corrections Institution in Dublin, California, east of Oakland, leading a task force to examine issues that Balsamo and Sisak had reported.

That heads-up gave the reporters a chance to visit the facility themselves the same week, talking to sources while the task force was fresh in their minds. Their story, based on interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with the visit, earns AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, June 2, 2020, examining issues facing prisons and jails during the coronavirus pandemic. Carvajal submitted his resignation in January 2022 but no replacement has been named and he remains on the job. – Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call, Pool via AP

According to sources, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, officials had moved inmates out of the special housing unit so it wouldn’t look as full when the task force arrived, and officials lied to Carvajal that one unit had COVID contamination, ensuring that inmates there wouldn’t be able to speak to him about abuse. Those who managed to get to Carvajal didn’t hold back. In one emotional scene, a woman who said she was abused by prison officials tearfully confronted him in a recreation area as he and members of the task force were meeting with inmates.

Sources told the AP that the woman was eventually offered immediate release to a halfway house. She objected, saying she wanted to wait so she could tell her story publicly to congressional leaders also expected to visit the prison. But officials told the woman that because she was a potential witness, she couldn’t talk about the investigation, sources said.

The reporters also learned that security cameras, an issue the prison’s union had been raising for six years, had not been installed. And the pair witnessed inmates walking around unsupervised — outside the prison.

Other reporting developed by Balsamo and Sisak was just as troubling: Since March, nine more workers have been placed on administrative leave, and during the task force’s visit, new inmate sexual abuse and staff employment discrimination complaints were filed. FBI agents searched the prison and an employee’s home in mid-April, and at least six internal affairs investigators have been on site investigating claims.

The AP story featured prominently in Politico Playbook and it led local newscasts. The Washington Post ran the piece in its entirety. The wire story was accompanied by a roundup of AP’s ongoing federal prisons investigation,which led to questioning of Attorney General Merrick Garland by House and Senate committees about conditions inside the Bureau of Prisons and particularly at the Dublin facility.

For resourceful,determined reporting that shows the shake-up of top officials hasn’t stopped persistent problems in the federal prisons,and that Balsamo and Sisak won’t be stopped from investigating the troubled agency, the pair shares AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner honors.

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