AP reporter who investigates federal prisons discusses Chauvin stabbing

portrait of a man with a grey suit
In this image taken from a video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin addresses the court at the Hennepin County Courthouse on June 25 2021, in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday upheld his second-degree murder conviction for the killing of George Floyd.
Court TV via AP 2021

Nearly one year before former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was stabbed 22 times by a fellow inmate at a federal prison in Arizona, the Associated Press published its latest update in its years-long investigation into the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The series pointed to a “federal prison system in deep crisis.”

After being treated at a hospital, Chauvin is now back in that prison system. And AP reporter Michael Sisak, one of the journalists who conducted the investigation, described it as “a violent place, much like a state prison or a city jail.”

“I think the popular conception of some federal prisons just being a white collar, relatively easy time behind bars is belied by the truth of things like what happened to Derek Chauvin,” Sisak told All Things Considered host Tom Crann on Monday.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the federal prison system, is the largest agency of the Justice Department, Sisak explained. Chauvin is at a prison in Tuscon, Ariz. “They have a unit called a dropout yard, which is a place within the prison where primarily former law enforcement, former gang members — people who may be targeted within the prison walls — are all held away from general population,” Sisak said.

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Chauvin was being held there, but that didn’t protect him. “As we learned from the criminal complaint against the inmate suspected of attacking him, this attack happened in a prison law library,” Sisak said. “That inmate told investigators that he had been thinking about attacking Chauvin for about a month and saw an opportunity the day after Thanksgiving when Chauvin was attacked.”

Sisak said he and his fellow reporters are still looking for answers to how this could happen. “Generally speaking, there has been a severe staffing shortage across the federal prison system. At one point, I think we reported there was a deficit of 6,000 or 7,000 correctional officers,” he said. “At Tucson, we've heard that there were staffing shortages on the day of the stabbing. That is still one of the questions we are pressing for answers, to see exactly how the staffing levels were and the response times."

While reporters and Chauvin’s family wait for answers about exactly what happened the day of the attack, legislation to upgrade security cameras and create more oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons wends its way through Congress. But Sisak emphasized the importance of reporting for holding the justice department accountable.

“These are literally facilities that are behind walls that are out of public view,” Sisak said. “The more we can do to shine a light, the more the public interest is served.”