A New Director Is Bringing Hope to the Federal Prisons Agency
However, her previous work leading the Oregon Department of Corrections has not gone without criticism.
Hope. Optimism. Reform.
Those are some of the words used in reactions from key stakeholders to the new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a Justice Department agency with nearly 35,000 employees, 157,490 inmates and an $8 billion budget that has faced a barrage of issues in recent years from staffing shortages to inmate violence to COVID-19 outbreaks. Michael Carvajal, who recently stepped down from the director position after announcing his retirement in January, faced backlash and criticism from lawmakers, union officials and others in his about two and a half years leading the agency.
“We have a rare opportunity during this historic time to show the world how to do corrections. And to do that we must support our BOP team members,” Colette Peters said during her swearing in ceremony on August 2. “Your work is not for the faint of heart. It is one of the most challenging beats in public safety…If you were tired and exhausted and ravaged with overtime before the pandemic, it's ever-more present today.”
Peters, who has a 30-year career in law enforcement, was most recently the first woman to serve as director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. She held that position for a decade, during which she implemented a more “humanizing” correctional practice, dubbed “the Oregon Way,” inspired by the Norwegian system.
Peters said she looks forward to “assessing and addressing employee wellness at BOP because the wellness data points nationally are startling. And I know that if we can improve your wellness, we can improve outcomes for everyone.” She added that: “I believe in good government. I believe in transparency. And I know we cannot do this work alone.” Peters said she looks forward to working with the Bureau of Prisons team, Justice Department leadership, the Justice inspector general, Congress and others.
“We have had a great deal of scrutiny from auditing and oversight entities both internal to and external of our agency,” she said in her first video message to staff, shared with Government Executive. “While these findings are difficult to hear, we must work diligently to address these deficiencies in order to improve our environment for everyone who works and lives at the bureau.”
What the Union is Saying
Shane Fausey, national president of the National Council of Prison Locals, told Government Executive that based on his introductory meeting of Peters, “I got a really good feeling in discussing and talking with her about her background, my background and kind of the vision of where we want to go.”
Specifically, on the staffing crisis, Peters “very clearly identified” and “fully understood my description of how tired and exhausted our staff are just working an unmanageable amount of overtime and mandatory overtime,” said Fausey. Also, “she understands employee wellness. We have prioritized employee wellness since I was elected back in 2019. Ironically, we are meeting at the table right now developing employee wellness policy for the Bureau of Prisons and Director Peters comes in at precisely the same time, that is one of her top priorities that she brought with her from Oregon.”
He said that addressing the staffing crisis will fix other issues that the Government Accountability Office and Justice Department IG have identified, such as on the “poor response to the COVID crisis [and] prison violence.”
When asked about Carvajal staying on for a little while as an advisor, as the Associated Press reported, Fausey stated that with an agency that has the budget and personnel size of BOP, “you don’t just turn off the lights and say have a nice day. It requires a transitional period to understand, and I hate to use the word, ‘bureaucracy’ of the federal government,” especially with Peters coming from a smaller organization on a state level. “Whatever your personal feelings are with Director Carvajal, I think it's essential for the success of Director Peters that he stay on board to kind of guide her at the beginning of her tenure.”
During her swearing in ceremony, Peters thanked Carvajal for his “diligent and thoughtful transition work” with her. Carvajal first came to the agency in 1992.
Fausey said Peters has the backing of members of Congress, the Justice Department, attorney general and White House and “I think all of those entities are in line with trying to turn the image of the Bureau of Prisons around and make it more successful.”
Reaction From Lawmakers and Others
Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., chair of the BOP Reform Caucus, told Government Executive, “I’m optimistic, based upon Director Peters’ experience, that we’ll be able to work together to find areas of agreement to be able to get to these issues that are important to all parties concerned,” such as to make sure correctional officers are safe and facilities are run well and the communities they are situated in are safe.
He also said he hopes to work with her to enact legislation, such as the bipartisan bill he introduced last November that would require BOP to evaluate its security cameras and radio systems and address any deficiencies, which was in response to a 2016 IG report. The Senate passed its version of the bill last October.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and lead author of the First Step Act, said on August 3 after a virtual meeting with Peters, “I’m more hopeful than ever that with Director Peters, Attorney General [Merrick] Garland and Deputy Attorney General [Lisa] Monaco have chosen the right leader to clear out the bureaucratic rot and reform BOP,” which Durbin acknowledged is a “tall order.”
Durbin started calling for a new BOP director last November after the Associated Press reported that more than 100 BOP workers were arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the beginning of 2019.
Tammie Gregg, deputy director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said, “we have lots of hope because there were lots of commitments made by the Biden administration with respect to reducing the prison population at the Bureau of Prisons,” as well as on the handling of the pandemic and ending solitary confinement.
But “what puts a little bit of a dent in some of that initial optimism is the fact that [former] Director Carvajal has been hired as a consultant for the Federal Bureau of Prisons” for at least a month, said Gregg. “It’s just the wrong signal in my view;” rather it should be “time for a new day.”
Nevertheless, “Colette Peters is known as a reformer. She’s known as someone who actually is compassionate and cares. I think having somebody who has a reputation for being compassionate is very important,” said Gregg.
Criticism of Peters
Peters’ decade running the Oregon prisons system was not without its issues.
Alice Lundell, director of communication for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which promotes civil rights and works to improve legal representation for underserved communities, told Government Executive that in regard to the Oregon Way “there’s a real disconnect between the rhetoric at the top and the reality on the ground.”
On the selection of Peters for the national role, Lundell said, “Every day we see so many problems in the prisons and it shouldn’t be taken as an indication that everything is good here because it certainly isn’t.” While her organization doesn’t work in the federal system, Lundell said she does keep up with what’s going on with it and sees the kind of issues people are concerned about in the federal system are the same as those in Oregon.
“Collette Peters is going to go from running  prisons in a state of a few million people with currently about 12,000 within the Oregon state system and now she’s going to be trusted to try to fix problems for [about] 150,000 people that she seemingly couldn’t do for [about] 12,000 people.” said Lundell. “Clearly, somebody saw something in her to believe she can, and I certainly hope she can, I certainly hope that those problems can be improved, but that’s the concern I would have.”
In an article last month, which quotes the executive director of Lundell’s organization, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported: “a massive class action lawsuit over the agency’s response to the pandemic has been filed against the state. Peters’ tenure was also marked by high-profile sexual assault scandals and allegations of retaliation—both towards staff as well as those in custody. And while supporters say she’s a reform-minded leader with a vision for improving prisons, detractors say she’s all talk and has made little progress on her stated goals during her decade running the Oregon Department of Corrections.”
When presented with these criticisms, Benjamin O’Cone, BOP spokesperson, pointed Government Executive to remarks from Attorney General Merrick Garland at Peters’ swearing in ceremony, during which he lauded her experience and vision for the agency.
“As a result of her 30+ years of experience in public safety, Director Peters offers a unique perspective on corrections,” he said additionally. “BOP leadership welcomes her vision and has full confidence in her ability to advance the mission of the agency.”