New head of federal prisons pledges to fix problems and regain trust

WASHINGTON — The new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons vowed Thursday that “the responsibility lies with me” when it comes to fixing the crisis-plagued agency, ticking off a list of top priorities, ranging from resolution from a personnel crisis to an end to widespread misconduct.

Colette Peters’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee – the first time she has appeared before Congress – is a stark departure from the combative nature of her predecessor, who drew bipartisan criticism for blaming others and refusing to accept responsibility for the agency’s problems.

Peters, who started in August, said the problems she inherited had eroded trust in the agency among staff, inmates and the public. She warned it will take time to turn around the largest component of the Justice Department, with 122 facilities, 159,000 inmates and a budget of more than $8 billion – but it must be done.

“These people we care for have a right to feel safe while incarcerated with us,” Peters told The Associated Press after testifying. “We will therefore do everything to ensure their safety.”

The Bureau of Prisons has come under increasing congressional scrutiny amid myriad crises, many of which have been revealed by AP reports, including rampant sexual abuse detainees by staff and other criminal behavior by staff, chronic understaffing hampering emergency response, escapes and deaths.

Peters, previously director of the Oregon State Prison System, was appointed to lead the Bureau of Prisons as a reforming outsider. Unlike former wardens who rose through the ranks, she had never been a federal prison employee before taking on the top job.

Peters said she wants people to get out of jail better than they got in, telling senators, “Our job is to make good neighbors, not good inmates.”

Currently, however, the federal prison system does not always position former inmates to succeed, advocates say. Due to staffing shortages, inmates are not always able to take classes and access other programs that might help them on the outside. Some inmates eligible for early release under the First Step Act — a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul measure signed into law under the Trump administration — have been left to languish as paperwork piles up for overworked case managers and understaffed, lawyers say.

In the weeks since Peters took over the Bureau of Prisons, she made changes to the system’s organizational chart that she says will improve communications between her headquarters and its 122 facilities. Other changes include the hiring of 40 more staff in internal affairs, which she says will improve management and resolve the backlog of misconduct investigations.

Peters said the agency has conducted what it calls cultural assessments of its facilities, starting with its women’s prisons, such as one in Dublin, Calif., where a former warden and four staff have been accused of sexually abused employees. Based on those findings, the agency is ensuring workers are trained in gender-sensitivity and trauma-informed care, said Peters, who visited Dublin prison this month.

She also promised to visit another troubled prison: the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary which has been plagued by misconduct and corruption and was the subject of a July hearing by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. .

At the same time, Peters must find a way to solve the agency’s severe personnel shortage and shore up the crumbling infrastructure.

With many vacancies, prisons are using cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates, raising questions about whether the agency is keeping prisoners and staff safe and tracking programs and courses as required by law.

Peters said the practice of makeshift staffing, known as augmenting, should only be used in genuine staffing emergencies, not as a permanent fix for shrinking guard ranks. Peters, expressing concern for employee well-being, said the agency’s increased reliance on overtime and raises during the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated “the attrition” prison workers.

But the increase may not go away anytime soon, with attrition only accelerating the agency’s downsizing and hiring efforts – including job fairs, increased marketing and new strategies. recruitment tools perfected by an external consultant – unable to keep up.

About 3,000 workers retired from the Bureau of Prisons last year and another 3,000 are expected to head out the door this year, Shane Fausey, president of the Federal Union of Corrections Workers, told the Judiciary Committee.

Peters also faces other challenges, including retrofitting facilities that are rotting with mold or literally collapsing. Others are in dire need of HVAC upgrades and other structural repairs. In total, the agency faces a $2 billion infrastructure deficit, Peters said.

Responding to a series of questions about AP reports of rampant sexual abuse at a California women’s prison, Peters vowed to continue to prioritize allegations of staff misconduct and encouraged those who see acts reprehensible to report them. The Justice Department is also pushing for additional prosecutions and tougher sentences for prison workers who sexually abuse inmates.

Peters said the agency must “create an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward” as whistleblowers — where inmates are free to speak up without reprisal and employees understand that they have an obligation to report wrongdoing.

Peters agreed without hesitation when Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., asked if “the buck stops with you” and if she will take “personal and ultimate responsibility for what happens” at the agency.

Peters reiterated that afterwards, telling the AP, “The buck stops with me. It’s important that I understand what’s going on within our organization.”

The AP reported in February that whistleblower employees said they were intimidated by high-ranking prison officials, while inmates alleging abuse were sent to solitary confinement or transferred to other prisons to be silenced.

A bill introduced Wednesday would require the Justice Department to hire an ombudsman to process and investigate such complaints. The measure enjoys the support of a broad coalition of prison actors, including Fausey’s union.

“A safe place to work is a safe place to live for offenders. We have a common goal. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Prisons is a very big bureaucracy. If you don’t maintain an independent line of oversight, a bureaucracy will abuse your herself and I think the office has gotten to a point where it can’t help itself anymore,” Fausey said.

Durbin, who has been a harsh critic of the Bureau of Prisons and its former director, Michael Carvajal, came away impressed with Peters, telling him, “A-plus. You did very well.”

Durbin said in an interview with the AP that Peters “has the right attitude to bring a new generation of leaders to the Bureau of Prisons.”

“She has her hands full,” Durbin said. “I want to support her in the administration. But I also want to hold them accountable.”


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