The new head of US prisons promises truth and reform of a troubled system

By MICHAEL R. SISAK and MICHAEL BALSAMO, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The stranger brought in to reform the ailing Federal Bureau of Prisons pledged Monday to hold accountable any employee who sexually assaults inmates, reform archaic hiring practices and bring new transparency to a agency that has long been a haven of secrecy and concealment.

Colette Peters detailed her vision in an extensive interview with The Associated Press, her first since becoming director nearly three months ago.

She said she wants to reorient the agency’s recruiting and hiring practices to find candidates who want to “change hearts and minds” and end systemic abuse and corruption. She would not rule out closing problematic prisons, although there are currently no plans to do so.

As Oregon Prison Warden, Peters developed the “Oregon Way” of prison management, which aims to transform “environments inside correctional facilities to be more normal and humane”, according to the State Prisons website. She oversaw steep declines in Oregon’s prison population.

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Skeptics within the base of the federal prison system called his approach “kissing a thug.” Peters didn’t mind, but he came up with a different term: “chocolate hearts.”

Peters said his ideal prison worker was as interested in preparing inmates for reintegration into society after their sentence as he was in maintaining order while those inmates were still locked up within prison walls.

“Our job, as you’ve heard me say before, is not to make good inmates. It’s to make good neighbours,” Peters said. “They’re coming back into our communities, and so we need to hire the right people up front with that kind of thinking to help us do that.”

It’s a departure from the agency’s previous recruiting model which emphasized labor law enforcement aspects. Peters’ approach is similar to prison management in Norway, where the emphasis behind bars is more on rehabilitation and promoting a humane approach.

But Peters acknowledges the major obstacles to reforming the Justice Department’s largest agency, a juggernaut with more than 30,000 staff, 158,000 inmates and an annual budget of around $8 billion.

Peters has visited three federal prisons so far as warden.

Two have been the source of the agency’s biggest controversies: a federal women’s prison in Dublin, California, where the warden and several other female employees have been accused of sexually abusing inmates, and the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, where inmates say they were denied showers. during a hunger strike and manhandled by a special tactical team.

On Tuesday, she is scheduled to travel to the US Penitentiary in Atlanta with one of the agency’s most vocal critics in Congress, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. Ossoff’s committee investigated the agency and clashed with its predecessor, Michael Carvajal.

Peters in the interview pointedly acknowledged that the agency was facing a massive staffing crisis that is at the center of its myriad problems, something Carvajal refused to do.

Staff shortages have hampered emergency responses and slowed implementation of the First Step Act, a criminal justice overhaul championed by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

“We’re looking for people who want to change hearts and minds, who want to make good neighbors, and safety is a top priority,” Peters said. “And so it’s a paradigm shift, and hopefully it’s one that gets the right people.”

Peters said the personnel crisis, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has only worsened as the agency seeks new ways to recruit officers and retain staff. A 2021 AP survey found nearly a third of federal correctional officer positions were vacant, forcing prisons to use cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates.

Now, the Bureau of Prisons not only finds itself competing with other law enforcement agencies and employers, but also with fast food restaurants offering signing bonuses. In some cities, the biggest obstacle has been the huge burden of the cost of living. And in rural communities, the agency has struggled to find many qualified candidates.

Peters also promised to have zero tolerance for any employee who abuses his position or sexually abuses inmates in his care.

“We need to continue to hold people accountable, let people see and understand that if you engage in this type of egregious activity, you will go to jail,” she said.

A year ago, the Justice Department made the bold decision to shut down one of its most troubled facilities: the crumbling Manhattan jail where financier Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in 2019.

Peters says the agency has yet to determine whether the jail, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, will reopen — a task that would require a costly structural overhaul. Nor does she rule out the closure of other prisons as repair bills mount and prison populations change.

“We will always analyze the infrastructure,” Peters said. “We have billions of dollars in overdue infrastructure repairs that need to be done across all of our facilities. At some point, there is a return on investment where only the repair cost is too high. »

AP reports have revealed rampant sexual abuse and other criminal behavior by staff, dozens of escapes, deaths and severe staff shortages that have hampered emergency responses.

“I said in this room that I needed to hear the good, the bad and the ugly,” Peters said. “We can’t have any surprises. We need to know what’s going on inside our agency to be able to help.

The Bureau of Prisons has also started ‘on-the-spot checks’ of security cameras in US prisons to ensure officers make rounds to check inmates held in separate accommodations, a major controversy after two agents supposedly keeping Jeffrey Epstein forged documents claiming to have checked him out while they were really sleeping and shopping online.

On Twitter, follow Michael Balsamo at twitter.com/mikebalsamo1 and Michael Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak and send confidential tips by visiting https://www.ap.org/tips.

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