Can Oregon’s Colette Peters fix the Federal Bureau of Prisons?

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters and follow them on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

When the embattled head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons stepped down earlier this year, many hoped his replacement would be someone capable of overhauling the scandal-ridden federal system.

The final pick — Oregon prison warden Colette Peters — seemed to fit the bill. During her 10 years as head of the state Department of Corrections, Peters earned a reputation as a reformer, vowing to reduce reliance on solitary confinement and the potentially stigmatizing word “inmate.” Like her counterparts in California and North Dakota, she made headlines by visiting Norway in hopes of bringing a softer model of incarceration back to the United States.

“We know so much more about what works in corrections than 10 years ago,” Peters said during his swearing-in ceremony. “Our job is not to make good inmates. It’s to make good neighbors.

But American prisons are still a far cry from those in Europe, and even the most innovative corrections officials here have overseen horrific living conditions in their prisons and abuse by their staff. By choosing Peters to lead the Bureau of Prisons, the Biden administration has brought local and state debates to a national stage: Can this new generation of prison leaders, who use words like “dignity” and “humanity,” really improve the lives of the men and women under their control?

Given the state of the federal prison system, experts are skeptical. Under former Bureau of Prisons director Michael Carvajal, the agency has come under scrutiny for an increasing number of escapes and suicides, as well as issues with understaffing, a slew of employee arrests, to ongoing sex abuse scandals, and to the mishandling of the pandemic.

“You can’t reform something this broken,” John Wetzel, who adopted some Norwegian practices while running Pennsylvania prisons for a decade, told the Marshall Project. “It’s not a situation of reform – it’s a situation of stabilizing a very broken system.”

And even though Justice Department officials touted Peters as a “visionary leader” with an eye on rehabilitation when they announced her appointment, critics raised questions about whether she truly lived up to the challenge. his ideals in Oregon.

“Federal elected officials have expressed concern about issues of harassment, discrimination, retaliation and sexual assault in the Bureau of Prisons,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. “We encounter many of these same issues at the Oregon Department of Corrections – and if under her long tenure, Colette Peters has not been able to properly address these issues here, how can we expect this to do it at a federal level with a much larger system?

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So far, Peters hasn’t said publicly if she has a plan to reform federal prisons, and through a spokesperson, she declined to comment for that story.

A former director of youth corrections, Peters took over Oregon’s adult prisons in 2012, becoming the first woman to oversee the billion-dollar agency. During his first years in the position, the Oregon Department of Corrections was criticized for its overuse of solitary confinement, widespread officer misconduct, security shortcomings and mail rules if restrictions that a federal court ruled them unconstitutional.

Then in 2017, at the urging of an advocacy group in California, Peters and a prison staff executive traveled to Norway to learn more about a prison philosophy focused on rehabilitation in a country with a recidivism rate. much lower. It was part of a movement of corrections officials across the country who were visiting European prisons, looking for ideas to take home.

The result was mostly modest experiments: Connecticut opened a unit where older prisoners mentored young adults, while North Dakota let some prisoners live in dormitory-style accommodations. Many leaders have been candid about wanting to do more, but have been constrained by politics (most are appointed by governors) and skepticism from their staff.

For his part, however, Peters launched an initiative dubbed “The Oregon Way,” with the goal of “humanizing and normalizing” prison life. The agency opened a Japanese garden at the state penitentiary, redesigned living areas to prevent officers from being alone on long shifts, dismantled death row and pushed lawmakers to pass a draft law replacing the word “inmate” by “adult in custody”.

For some outside experts, these changes have all shown significant interest in the change that bodes well for Peters’ future in the federal system.

“Is it someone who wants to move the office to a different location? Yes, I believe she is,” said Brie Williams, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco who helped lead the trip to Norway as part of the university’s Amend program, which aims to changing the culture inside jails and prisons.

But to some in Peters’ department, the changes seemed superficial. In an unsigned email exchange with The Marshall Project, leaders of a prison workers’ union called the reforms “lipstick on a pig”. And Nathaline Frener, a senior agency official whom Peters fired on the final day, said she was disappointed with the administration’s “lack of interest” in maintaining concrete goals to implement Norwegian philosophies. . Reformers outside the agency shared similar concerns.

“If we’re talking about real culture change, real improvements in care and custody conditions, I haven’t seen anything,” said Bobbin Singh, director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “It’s actually getting worse and worse.”

Singh attributed some of that decline to changes resulting from COVID-19 and understaffing, two issues that make it more difficult to deliver basic programs and services to those behind bars. But part of the problem, he said, is a broader cultural issue that can be difficult for a leader to overcome.

An example of this, Singh said, is the case of Mark Wilson, who was placed in solitary confinement for four months after a state employee made a joke suggesting he was spending too much time at home. making phone calls for his work in prison as a paralegal.

This length of stay in solitary confinement – ​​especially for a non-violent offense – is against European standards and is long enough to be considered torture by the United Nations.

And while she wasn’t personally responsible for the decision to place Wilson in solitary confinement, Peters later defended the decision, telling a legislative committee that even such a minor violation could lead “to the erosion of the security of all, and often leads to further criminal behavior.”

While Wilson’s case has drawn attention in part because it led to a federal lawsuit, state data shows the agency still relies heavily on solitary confinement. Even after years of working to minimize the use of solitary confinement and to improve conditions there, about a third of Oregon’s prisoners were sent to solitary confinement last year. That’s a huge decrease from 2017, when 45% of the population was put in solitary confinement – but it still means over 4,000 people spent time in solitary confinement in 2021.

Regardless of its record in Oregon, however, federal prison insiders say it would be difficult to replicate the state’s tactics in the federal system — in part because the federal system, which includes more than 120 facilities housing 157 700 prisoners, about 13 times the size of Oregon. .

“In Oregon, their processes are quite different because we have so much red tape and bureaucracy,” said Aaron McGlothin, president of the FCI Mendota Employees Union in California.

But Kevin Ring, director of the prisoner advocacy organization known as FAMM, said worrying about who runs the Bureau of Prisons can focus on the wrong issue.

“I’m less concerned about who the BOP director is and more about having an independent oversight mechanism in place,” Ring said. Although the office has an inspector general to conduct audits, Ring pushed for legislation that would create an oversight body with the authority and funding to conduct regular site visits and unannounced inspections.

“Nothing good happens in the dark,” he added, “and BOP is the darkest place.”

Peters, for his part, seems to agree. “I believe in transparency,” she announced recently, saying she wanted to work with Congress and other outside oversight bodies. “I know we can’t do this job alone.”

Additional reporting by Maurice Chammah.

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