WASHINGTON (AP) — The outsider called in to reform the ailing federal agency of prisons pledged Monday to hold all employees who sexually abuse inmates to account, reform archaic hiring practices and bring new transparency to an agency long-held has been a haven of secrecy and cover-ups.
Colette Peters laid out her vision in an extensive interview with The Associated Press, her first since he became director almost three months ago.
She said she wants to refocus the agency’s hiring and hiring practices to find candidates who want to “change hearts and minds” and end systemic abuse and corruption. It does not rule out closing problematic prisons, although there are currently no plans to do so.
As a prison warden in Oregon, Peters developed the “Oregon Way” for running prisons, which aims to “transform penitentiary environments to more normal and humane,” according to the state prisons website. She oversaw sharp declines in Oregon’s prison population.
Skeptics within the federal prison system have derided her approach as “hug a criminal.” Peters didn’t mind, but offered another term: “chocolate hearts.”
Peters said her ideal prison officer is just as interested in preparing inmates for return to society after their sentences as keeping them in order while those inmates are still locked up within prison walls.
“It’s not our job, as you’ve heard me say before, to make good prisoners. It’s to make good neighbours,’ said Peters. “They’re coming back to our communities, 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 that emphasized the law enforcement aspects of the job. Peters’ approach is similar to how prisons are run in Norway, where the focus behind bars is more on rehabilitation and promoting a humane approach.
But Peters recognizes major hurdles to reforming the Justice Department’s largest agency, a behemoth of more than 30,000 employees, 158,000 inmates and an annual budget of about $8 billion.
Peters has served three federal prisons as director so far.
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 employees have been accused of sexually abusing detaineesand the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, where inmates say they were refused showers during a hunger strike and hunted by a special tactical team.
On Tuesday, she will visit the U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta with one of the bureau’s most vocal critics in Congress, Senator Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. Ossoff’s commission has investigated the agency and clashed with its predecessorMichael Carvajal.
Peters emphatically acknowledged in the interview that the agency is facing a massive staffing crisis that is central to the myriad of problems that Carvajal had refused to do.
Low staffing levels have hampered emergency responses and delayed implementation of the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform advocating for Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
“We are looking for people who want to change hearts and minds, who want to make good neighbors and safety and security is a top priority,” said Peters. “And so that’s a paradigm shift, and I hope it’s one that recruits the right people.”
Peters said the staffing crisis, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has only worsened as the agency seeks new ways to recruit officials and retain its staff. A 2021 AP investigation found that nearly a third of federal correctional officer positions were vacantforcing prisons to use cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates.
Now the Bureau of Prisons competes not only with other law enforcement agencies and corporate employers, but also with fast food restaurants that offer signing bonuses. In some cities, the huge cost of living was the biggest hurdle. And in rural communities, the agency struggles to find many qualified candidates.
Peters also vowed to have zero tolerance for any employee who abuses their position or sexually assaulted inmates under their care.
“We need to continue to hold people accountable, show people and understand that if you get involved in this kind of blatant activity, you’re going to go to jail,” she said.
A year ago, the Justice Department took the bold step to shut down one of its more troubled facilities: the crumbling Manhattan prison where financier Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide in 2019.
Peters says the agency has yet to determine whether the prison, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, will reopen — a task that would require an expensive structural overhaul. She also does not rule out the need to close more prisons as repair bills pile up and the prison population shifts.
“We will always analyze the infrastructure,” says Peters. “We have billions of dollars in back-loaded infrastructure repairs that need to be done across all of our institutions. At some point there is a return on investment where only the repair costs are too high.”
AP reporting has exposed rampant sexual abuse and other criminal behavior by staffdozens of escapes, deaths and severe staff shortages that have hampered response to emergencies.
“I said in this room that I need to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Peters. “We should not be faced with any surprises. We need to know what’s going on inside our agency so we can help.”
The Bureau of Prisons has also started checking security cameras in prisons across the US to make sure officers are making rounds to check inmates in segregated housing units, a major controversy after two officers who were said to be guarding Jeffrey Epstein forged documents claim they checked him while they were real sleep and online shopping.
Follow on Twitter 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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