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New director tapped to lead scandal-ridden Bureau of Prisons

Colette Peters, former head of Oregon’s correctional department, will take over as head of the Bureau of Prisons on Aug. 2.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Prison reform advocates are already making laundry lists of demands for Colette Peters, who was appointed on Tuesday by Attorney General Merrick Garland to lead the scandal-ridden Bureau of Prisons. 

Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, told Courthouse News that the “problems people are concerned about” within the Bureau of Prisons — abuse, corruption and staffing woes — are the “same kinds of things happening” at the Oregon Department of Corrections, which Peters has led since 2012.

“So why is Peters trusted to fix things for 150,000 people when she couldn’t do it for 12,000?" Singh said.

His comments come the same day Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that Peters is “uniquely qualified” to lead the federal agency that has been wrought with controversies involving sexual abuse, escapes and murder in recent years. 

Garland has been looking to fill the position for about seven months, since former Attorney General William Barr’s pick, Michael Carvajal, resigned in January amid public scrutiny of his agency oversight amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The attorney general’s reform-minded choice is credited with spearheading a Norwegian-style prison reform initiative, “The Oregon Way,” aimed at segregation reform and staff well-being within the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC). 

“The Oregon Way is a philosophical approach to corrections based on best practices in security and the belief that humanizing and normalizing the prison environment is beneficial for employees and the people we incarcerate,” according to its website. 

A program to help offenders shift to lower-level security populations and creation of “Resource Teams” to assess mentally ill inmates are some of The Oregon Way changes implemented since its inception in 2019. 

Singh, however, is skeptical of the progressive prison reform initiative. He pointed to the resource center’s recent report on news articles published between March 1, 2020, to March 31, 2022, that showed “many articles highlighted glaring and reoccurring issues within ODOC’s staff, culture and daily operations." 

“Abuses included violations of constitutional rights; denial of basic needs; sexual, physical and mental harm; negligent medical care; and general disregard for human life and wellbeing,” he said. 

Singh said that advocates “have not seen evidence” that Peters has effectively addressed inmate concerns “nor that her much-touted ‘Oregon Way’ has truly filtered down to change the way the 12,000+ Oregonians in prison are treated.” 

"This appointment seems to have been made without thorough discussion with people who have advocated for the rights and dignity of incarcerated people,” he said. 

Meanwhile, ACLU National Prison Project Director David Fathi told Courthouse News the nonprofit has high hopes for Garland’s pick. 

“The appointment of someone who we hope will execute a fundamental change, of course, is — we hope — a positive sign,” Fathi said. 

Describing Peters’ “long to-do list,” Fathi noted that the federal prison population has “steadily” increased under the Biden Administration, following seven years of decline. 

“So, the new director needs to aggressively use all the tools at her disposal to release people who can be safely held in home confinement, or other less disruptive settings,” he said. 

Moving away from solitary confinement and addressing chronic staffing shortages within the bureau’s 122 federal prisons and 178 global facilities are also key concerns for Fathi. And implementing a prison reform initiative similar to The Oregon Way on a national scale, he said, is doable. 

“Obviously, there are questions of scale,” he said. “But leadership is everything.” 

The fact that Peters, who is set to take over the bureau on Aug. 2, does not have any prior experience in the federal prison system does not deserve “any weight at all,” he said. 

“In my experience, there's just no correlation between prior experience and the agency and how good a director you are,” Fathi said. 

He continued, “If anything, I think it might be helpful to have an outsider come in and clean house in an agency that so obviously needs it.” 

The prison reform leader sees the size of the federal prison population, which was 157,696 federal inmates as of July 7, as “probably the most important” indicator of whether Peters is leading the agency in the right direction. 

“Given the steady increase we've seen under [the Biden] Administration, I think that is one of the most urgent tasks before her,” Fathi said. 

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