“Hello I’m Colette Peters,” are the words that marked the beginning of the leadership of the 12th Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). She has her work cut out for her to turn around an agency that has poor labor-management relations, aging buildings, mounting medical care for prisoners, failures at implementing criminal reform and a poor track record of transparency.
Peters took over for Michael Carvajal, who took the lead job after a career in the BOP that started walking the range of prisons as a corrections officer. Carvajal’s misleading statements and lack of accountability were on full display when a US Senate Permanent Subcommittee Investigations grilled him as he was days from leaving the agency in July. Few will miss Carvajal but now Peters is tasked with bringing about change to an agency that is having problems attracting quality candidates to work in the difficult conditions of the BOP.
Peters started her career 30 years ago with the Denver Police Department, then went on to the Oregon State Inspector General, then the Director of the Oregon Youth Authority and finally the Director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. She comes to the BOP with no experience with the federal agency, a true outsider in an agency with many secrets. The BOP employees ranked their work experience at the agency near the bottom among other US government agencies.
So what big things await her? Here are the biggest challenges facing Director Peters as she starts her career at the BOP:
1) Staffing – Even Carvajal was asking for BOP staff to put forward recommendations for employment and offered cash rewards for those whose recommendations were eventually hired. Filling correction officer vacancies is difficult but it increasingly difficult to fill specialist positions like like psychologists, physicians and other medical related positions.
2) Implementing First Step Act (FSA) – The sweeping criminal justice reform signed under Donald Trump has yet to be implemented. In January, the Department of Justice issued a final rule on FSA that expanded the ability for prisoners to earn time off of their sentences. However, computer problems and a shortage of staff had led to prisoners staying in prison longer.
3) Open Up Institutions – The BOP needs to open institutions that are not programming due to COVID-19 restrictions. The morale of the staff and the prisoners is at an all-time low because of lockdowns, few visits and limited programming activities. The whole country is now open, but the BOP has not fully conducting training for prisoners. The BOP also needs to utilize the $400M they get annually to get needed staff on board, computer tablets implemented, and programs improved/increased.
4) CARES Act – The BOP implemented one of its most successful programs by sending some low risk inmates to home confinement in an effort to control prison population during the pandemic. Approximately 5,000 inmates were transferred to home confinement under the CARES Act with most of them successfully integrating back into their community under the strict conditions of monitoring. However, the federal prison population today is roughly what it was prior to the pandemic. As the CARES Act itself is closer to its end than its beginning, the BOP needs to not only continue its use. Its success will certainly be an example of what future criminal reform will look like.
5) Root out Bad Staff – There are many good staff members in the BOP but that small population of corrupt staff must be rooted out. The Associated Press reported extensively on corruption at the BOP, something outgoing Director Michael Carvajal was grilled on during his last Senate hearing. Director Peters started working on this by issuing a directive regarding staff searches … she needs to do more and there are plenty of good employees in the agency who will help if Peters can provide an environment where those who do speak up are not retaliated against. The BOP must clean up its act as one bad apple gives the whole agency a bad rep and puts lives at stake.
Director Peters is now running an agency that is significantly larger and more complex than the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) she left to come to the BOP. ODOC has approximately 12,000 prisoners in 12 institutions … the BOP has over 155,000 prisoners in 122 institutions across the United States.
I spoke to a former BOP Director familiar with the task of taking the helm of the BOP who did not want to be identified but provided insight into what Director Peters is facing, “Bold things are hard in a prison” the person told me, “Peters also can’t move quickly on hiring internal or external as the Human Resources process takes time. However, she can start changing the message and set a tone. I am sure she will focus on staff wellness and she needs to get out to visit staff and , she needs to make clear dirty staff will not be tolerated, at the same time make clear bad inmate behavior will be prosecuted.”
Peters let BOP staff know that she is coming to make changes, “We do have the support of the United States Attorney General and and the attention of a congress who seeks to improve correctional goals and re-entry outcomes. The First Step Act is an historic piece of legislation focused not on punishment but rather on improving lives not only of individuals in our custody but your life.”
We’ll see if her first 90 days reflect whether or not the ship is moving, and in which direction.