Colette S. Peters, the longtime director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, has been tapped to lead what The New York Times last week called “the chronically mismanaged and understaffed federal Bureau of Prisons.”
The appointment comes after a 5-month search to replace current BOP Director Michael Carvajal. Carvajal announced his retirement in January under pressure from Senate Democrats – especially Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin (D-IL) – who questioned his management.
The Times said Peters “was considered the favored candidate for a job seen as one of the Justice Department’s most demanding and thankless assignments.” Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, was blunter: “Colette Peters is walking into a dumpster fire. From sexual violence and medical neglect to understaffing and years-long lockdowns, the BOP’s leadership has allowed a humanitarian crisis to develop on its watch. Families with incarcerated loved ones have been begging for change.”
The Associated Press reported that “Peters, who championed steeply reducing [Oregon’s] inmate population in the last decade, will inherit a federal agency plagued by myriad scandals. Her hiring comes about seven months after Director Michael Carvajal submitted his resignation amid mounting pressure from Congress after investigations by The Associated Press exposed widespread corruption and misconduct in the agency.”
Those issues include health and safety problems, physical and sexual abuse, corruption and turnover in the top management ranks. Staffing issues, exacerbated by the pandemic, have resulted in a huge shortage of prison guards and health personnel, according to an AP investigation last year, which uncovered a wide array of other shortcomings.
When she takes office on Aug 2, Peters will become only the second director in BOP history with no prior experience in the federal prison system. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, who led the search to replace Carvajal, said DOJ had been looking for someone focused on reforming an agency that has had cultural issues for decades.
Durbin had been especially critical of Carvajal, who started his BOP career as a correctional officer 30 years ago, accusing him of failing to properly implement the First Step Act. Last winter, he called repeatedly for Carvajal’s firing, describing the BOP as rife with abuse and corruption.
The accuracy of that criticism was underscored this week by a Forbes report that 42 months after First Step became law, the BOP is only now beginning staff training on how to apply earned-time credits for inmates, with training set to start next month. Forbes said, “While the training on FSA is a great idea, it also serves as verification that the BOP is way behind on implementing the most important aspect of the law, which is to allow prisoners to earn time off of their sentences. After training, it will take months to coordinate local training at the institution level. Until then, expect the chaos to continue and questions to go unanswered.”
Shane Fausey, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, which represents BOP employees, welcomed the selection of Peters. “We believe that the lessons [Peters] learned while leading the Oregon Department of Corrections can be used to effectively improve the BOP,” he told Government Executive. “Additionally, it is extremely important that officer and employee safety are prioritized in all decisions.”
Rep Fred Keller (R-PA), chair of the House BOP Reform Caucus, said, “I look forward to maintaining an active and productive relationship with Director Peters in her new capacity on BOP priorities such as improving the agency’s operations, increasing correctional officer staffing levels, and ensuring the safety of staff and inmates.”
Peters has faced criticism during her stint as ODOC chief. She was accused in a lawsuit of placing underqualified friends in high-ranking positions within the ODOC and creating openings for them by firing other employees or creating a hostile environment causing other employees to quit.
Bobbin Singh, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, last week expressed concern about Peters’s appointment given his experience with her. “This appointment is an insult to all those incarcerated in Oregon who are fighting for their civil rights and dignity,” Singh told the online publication Law Dork last Tuesday.
Less than a month ago, his organization sent a report to Oregon lawmakers detailing ongoing problems at ODOC. In the letter to lawmakers accompanying the report, Singh wrote, “Despite a cascade of evidence revealing serious issues within the department, ODOC continues to put forward a misleading narrative that either ignores the issues entirely, profoundly sanitizes the facts, or wrongly shifts blame and responsibility away from itself.”
Law Dork reported, “Another person familiar with Peters’s work helped explain how Singh could have such criticisms and DOJ could nonetheless want Peters for the job: ‘She both runs a bad system and is one of the handful of best DOC heads in the country. She has made some concrete improvements to the system. But the system is still really bad. It says so much about American prisons that ODOC can both be very bad — and be one of the better ones in the country.’”
NY Times, Justice Department Taps Oregon Official to Run Troubled Bureau of Prisons (July 11, 2022)
Associated Press, Justice Dept taps reforming outsider to run federal prisons (July 12, 2022)
Govt Executive, A New Federal Prisons Director Has Been Named, and Union Officials and Lawmakers Are Optimistic She Will Bring Positive Reforms (July 12, 2022)
Law Dork, New Prisons Head Comes From Oregon, With Baggage (Jul y 13, 2022)