New U.S. prisons chief pledges truth, reform for ailing system
Colette Peters wants to change hiring practices to find candidates who want to "change hearts and minds"
By Michael R. Sisak and Michael Balsamo
WASHINGTON — The outsider brought in to reform the ailing federal Bureau of Prisons pledged Monday to hold accountable any employees who sexually assault inmates, reform archaic hiring practices and bring new transparency to an agency that has long been a haven of secrecy and coverups.
Colette Peters detailed her vision in a wide-ranging 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, though there are no current plans to do so.
As Oregon's prison director, Peters developed the “Oregon Way” of running prisons, which aims to transform “environments inside correctional facilities to be more normal and humane," according to the state prisons' website. She oversaw sharp drops in Oregon's inmate population.
Skeptics within the federal prison system’s rank and file have derided her approach as “hug a thug.” Peters didn’t mind that but offered a different term: “chocolate hearts.”
Peters said her ideal prison worker is as interested in preparing inmates for returning to society after their sentences as they are in keeping order while those inmates are still locked within the prison walls.
“Our job, as you’ve heard me say before, is not to make good inmates. It’s to make good neighbors,” Peters said. “They’re coming back to our communities, and so we need to hire the right people on the front end with that kind of thinking to help us do that.”
It's a departure from the agency's previous recruiting model that stressed 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 acknowledges 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 visited three federal prisons so far as director.
Two have been sources of the agency's biggest controversies: a federal women's prison in Dublin, California, where the warden and several other employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates, and the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, where inmates say they were denied showers during a hunger strike and roughed up by a special tactical team.
On Tuesday she’s scheduled to visit U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta with one of the agency’s most vocal critics in Congress, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. Ossoff's committee has been investigating the agency and clashed with her predecessor, Michael Carvajal.
Peters in the interview pointedly acknowledged the agency is facing a massive staffing crisis that is at the center of its myriad issues, which Carvajal had refused to do.
Low staffing has hampered responses to emergencies and slowed the implementation of the First Step Act, a criminal justice overhaul championed by 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,” Peters said. “And so that is 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 looks for new ways to recruit officers and retain its staff. A 2021 AP investigation found nearly one-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 finds itself not only competing with other law enforcement agencies and corporate employers, but with fast food restaurants offering signing bonuses. In some cities, the biggest hurdle has been huge cost of living burdens. And in rural communities, the agency has struggled to find many qualified applicants.
Peters also vowed to have zero tolerance for any employee who abuses their position or sexually abuses inmates in their 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’re going to prison,” she said.
A year ago, the Justice Department took the bold step of closing one of its more troubled facilities: the crumbling Manhattan jail where financier Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in 2019.
Peters says the agency has yet to determine if the jail, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, will reopen — a task that would require a pricey structural overhaul. She also isn’t ruling out closing more prisons as repair bills pile up and inmate populations shift.
“We will always be analyzing the infrastructure,” Peters said. “We have billions of dollars in back-loaded infrastructure repairs that need to happen at all of our institutions. At some point there’s a return on investment where there’s just the cost of repairing them are too high.”
AP reporting has revealed rampant sexual abuse and other criminal conduct by staff, dozens of escapes, deaths and severe staffing shortages that have hampered responses to emergencies.
“I have said in this room I need to hear the good, the bad and the ugly," Peters said. "We cannot have any surprises. We have to know what is happening inside our agency so we can help.”
The Bureau of Prisons has also started to “spot check” security cameras at prisons across the U.S. to ensure officers are conducting rounds to check on inmates held in segregated housing units, a major controversy after two officers who were supposed to be guarding Jeffrey Epstein falsified documents claiming to have checked on him while they were really sleeping and shopping online.