When Colette Peters started her new job in August as the Federal Bureau of Prisons director, she may have believed her most challenging task included those locked up in government-run prisons.
However, many formerly incarcerated individuals are in Peters’ ear, urging her to overhaul federal prisons.
On Tuesday, Sept. 6, a group of previously imprisoned individuals joined more than 50 advocacy organizations in penning a letter urging Peters to rectify inhumane conditions within federal prisons, bring the Bureau into compliance with federal law, and meet with formerly and currently incarcerated people.
“We have all witnessed the Bureau’s failure to provide adequate medical care, safe conditions, and rehabilitative programs,” the group wrote in the letter to Peters.
“We ask you to bring the Bureau into compliance with federal law and to lead the Bureau toward a more humane future grounded in transparency and accountability. Over 157,000 people – thousands of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and grandparents – are confined within federal prisons and relying on you for justice.”
Counting among the large group of individuals and organizations signing the letter were the American Civil Liberties Union, All Things Art, Inc., the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), CAN-DO, The Sentencing Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the DC Reentry Task Force.
Peters began her new job in August after ten years running the Oregon Department of Corrections. Her detractors assert that Oregon’s prison system remains rife with problems.
In April, a judge granted class-action status to prisoners who fell ill because of Covid.
They described Peters’ response to the pandemic as a failure, while several sexual assault scandals and allegations of retaliation also marked her tenure.
“I’ve experienced the dangerous and inhumane conditions in federal prisons. Understaffing is no excuse for cruelty, especially when Director Peters has the power to address overcrowding and protect the most vulnerable with compassionate release,” said William Underwood, signatory of today’s letter, Senior Fellow at The Sentencing Project, and a recipient of compassionate release in 2021.
“There are many more people like me in federal prisons – and many who are older and sicker – who deserve to return to their loved ones.”
The Sentencing Project noted that the letter follows recent congressional testimony on federal prisons’ abusive and rapidly deteriorating conditions.
“Persistent staff shortages pre-dating the pandemic have severely compromised the functioning and safety of federal prisons, resulting in a lack of clean water, kitchens infested with rats and cockroaches, severely rationed and delayed access to medical and dental care, and near-endless waitlists to access rehabilitative programming,” Sentencing Project officials wrote.
“Meanwhile, the Bureau continues to deny compassionate release in the vast majority of cases, has persistently failed to comply with the First Step Act, and is rife with corruption and misconduct.”
The letter requests that Peters meet with groups of stakeholders, including formerly incarcerated individuals, their families, and advocacy groups.
It also requests that Peters visit at least six prisons at every security level within her first six months in office and meet individually with incarcerated people.
The groups also request that she address overpopulation and dangerous conditions by increasing grants of compassionate release, especially for elderly and medically vulnerable individuals.
They’re seeking assurance that Peters will comply with the First Step Act by providing adequate programming, ending the practice of “augmentation,” correcting unsanitary and inhumane conditions, and dramatically increasing access to medical, dental, and mental health care.
Read the full letter here.