Colette Peters, the new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, vowed Thursday that “the buck stops with me” when it comes to fixing the crisis-plagued agency. Peters ticked off a list of top priorities, from solving a staffing crisis to ending widespread misconduct.
Peters’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee — the first time she’s appeared before Congress — was a departure from the combative nature of her predecessor, who drew bipartisan rebukes for foisting blame on others and refusing to accept responsibility for the agency’s problems, reports the Associated Press.
Peters, who started last month, said the troubles she inherited have eroded trust in the agency among staff, inmates and the public. She said it would take time to turn around the Justice Department’s largest component, with 122 facilities, 159,000 inmates and a budget of more than $8 billion.
Inmates "have the right to feel safe when they are incarcerated with us,” Peters told AP after testifying. “So we’re going to do everything we can to ensure their safety.”
The Bureau of Prisons has been under increasing scrutiny from Congress amid several crises, including rampant sexual abuse of inmates by staff and other staff criminal conduct, chronic understaffing hampering emergency responses, escapes and deaths.
Peters, formerly director of Oregon’s state prison system, was brought in to run the Bureau of Prisons as a reform-minded outsider. Unlike past directors, she’d never been a federal prison employee before taking the top job.
Because of staffing shortages, inmates aren’t always able to take classes and access programming that could help them on the outside. Some inmates eligible for early release under the First Step Act — a criminal justice overhaul measure signed during the Trump administration — have been left to languish while paperwork piles up for overworked, understaffed case managers.
Peters must figure out a way to solve the agency’s severe staffing shortage and shore up crumbling infrastructure.
About 3,000 workers retired from the Bureau of Prisons last year and another 3,000 are expected to leave this year, Shane Fausey, the president of the federal correctional workers union, told the Judiciary Committee
A bill introduced Wednesday would require the Justice Department to hire an ombudsman to field and investigate complaints. The measure has support from a broad coalition of prison stakeholders, including Fausey’s union.