Former Oregon prisons chief now leads the country’s prisons
Longtime Oregon prison system leader Colette Peters takes on a much bigger post this week as the new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The US Department of Justice, which oversees the office, called Peters a changemaker, pointing to her background in the state as well as a model she developed called the ‘Oregon Way’, which aimed to get rid of the punitive culture. prison tradition.
But the state prison system is still plagued with problems.
A massive class action lawsuit over the agency’s response to the pandemic has been filed against the state. Peters’ tenure has also been marred by high-profile sexual assault scandals and allegations of retaliation — both against staff and those in custody.
And while her supporters say she is a reformist leader with a vision to improve prisons, her critics say she talks and has made little headway on her stated goals in her decade at the helm of the Oregon Department of Corrections.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to make Peters available for interview. But during his tenure in Oregon, Peters spoke frequently about his efforts to not only humanize those incarcerated, but also to improve staff welfare.
“Crime and punishment are tough, they’re emotional and can create fear if you’re a victim of crime,” Peters told OPB’s Think Out Loud in 2019. “And while I can’t change the victim of crime that has been created, when these individuals [who committed crimes] come to us first, our job is to make that life more normal, more human on the inside, so that when they leave and become our neighbors, they’ll be good neighbors and don’t commit more crimes.
Even its supporters say the vision never translated into tangible rules and specific policies.
“She certainly gets some credit for thinking about prison in a different way, in a more humanistic way, in that ‘Oregon Way,’ of course, but she didn’t finish the job,” Aliza said. Kaplan, professor at Lewis and Clark Law. Portland school that runs a clinic that represents dozens of people in the state prison system.
“Just because Oregon’s prisons are better than Louisiana’s, it doesn’t matter,” Kaplan said. “You don’t get points for that. You get points for having creative ideas, implementing them and following them.
Others who worked with Peters see his time in the state as more productive than that.
“Her consistent recognition that people in the system are actually people is a legacy she can be proud of,” said Jennifer Williamson, a former Democratic lawmaker turned lobbyist who oversaw the Oregon Department of Corrections budget. . “It’s still a prison system and a prison system in the United States and so there’s something to be more than concerned about. We have incredibly brutal systems in this country. And she recognizes that. She runs one.
For Williamson, who is progressive, and others who know Peters and have worked closely with her, the Biden administration is sending a clear message with this hire: They want to make changes to the federal prison system.
“Tragically, the system is collapsing,” said Oregon federal public defender Lisa Hay. “The staff are atrocious, access to medical care, nutrition and helpful meals has plummeted.”
Hay represents those incarcerated in federal prisons across the country. She doesn’t know Peters personally, but said she was about to take on an almost impossible task.
“There are a number of health and safety issues that she will need to address immediately,” Hay said.
In a statement, Attorney General Merrick Garland called Peters uniquely qualified to take on those duties. The Justice Department did not respond to requests to discuss Peters’ hiring further.
In 2017 and 2018, Peters traveled with lawmakers to Norway to visit their prison system, which is run with an entirely different philosophy than that which guides American imprisonment. Peters talked about it on OPB’s Think Out Loud show in 2019.
“While safety and security is their biggest responsibility, as it is here in Oregon, their goal is to create a prison environment that reflects the community,” Peters said. “And so their prison environments are beautiful. There are trees and plants and images and art in a way that normalizes that environment. Not just for those who are incarcerated, but for those who work there.
Some have praised his interest in reform and his efforts to improve the lives of people in custody and prison workers. But others felt that those efforts had failed.
“As far as things that she did well, I honestly can’t think of anything,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit that sued Peters and the state prison system on several occasions for cases of abuse and retaliation.
“Could you have traded it for someone who did absolutely nothing, just acted in a neutral position and got the same result?” Singh asked rhetorically. “I mean, probably.”
Peters faced a number of extreme challenges during his tenure, including the 2020 wildfires that engulfed the state and forced the Department of Corrections to evacuate several prisons. Reports of prisoners stuck in buses, their hands tied by zippers, urinating and defecating in their pants, did nothing to improve her image as a reformer.
In 2020, Peters discussed the unprecedented evacuation with the OPB – acknowledging the office’s response had issues.
“But a lot of things went well,” she said at the time. “We have successfully transported thousands of people across the state…safely. No one was hurt. No one has disappeared. »
Singh said no one in custody disappears while in custody is not a high standard. But her main complaint about Peters is that she hasn’t fully engaged state lawmakers and advocated for the resources needed to make dramatic improvements to state prisons.
“You never hear him say ‘we need these things to treat people better,'” Singh said. In “the vast majority of presentations, she always defends the agency. There’s still a lack of transparency and high-level talk that tries to portray the agency as, “It’s all good.” And for me, that’s the biggest failure.
Peters will now run a much larger agency where all is decidedly not well. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is responsible for 150,000 people held in some 300 prisons and community housing.
Right now, the federal agency isn’t even using the tools it has to improve its system, according to Alison Guernsey, director of the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Iowa School of Law.
Guernsey said ensuring federal prisons use the tools Congress has given them should be a priority for Peters. For example, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has struggled to implement the First Step Act — a bipartisan effort passed by Congress in 2018 to allow people to complete their sentences at home, if they are not violent.
“Decarceration is incredibly urgent,” Guernsey said. “And I think for public health reasons. I also think it is for human rights reasons.
Guernsey also said Peters should quickly address the Bureau’s culture, which she says lacks humanity.
“There’s no culture of treating the people we have in prison as people first,” she said. “They’re treated like inmates, they’re treated like delinquents, they’re treated like defendants.”
They are treated, Guernsey said, like anything but human beings.
Despite Peters’ mixed ratings in Oregon, advocates hope the new head of the nation’s largest incarceration system can make some of the changes she tried to institute here.