by Jacob Barrett
On August 2, 2022, the federal Department of Justice introduced its pick to helm the nation’s Bureau of Prison (BOP): Collette Peters, the director of Oregon’s Department of Corrections (DOC) since 2012. She fills a slot vacated by retiring BOP Director Michael Carvajal, a career agency employee—he began work as a guard in 1992—tapped by former Attorney General William P. Barr in February 2020.
Carvajal’s tenure, plagued by criminal activity and sexual abuse by guards, prisoner deaths and dozens of escapes, was capped with a contentious hearing at the U.S. Senate Permanent Investigation Subcommittee on August 1, 2022, the day before Peters took over.
There Carvajal’s attempts to deflect blame to subordinates earned a bi-partisan dressing-down from Chairman Sen. John Ossoff (R-Ga.) and Ranking Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.).
“It’s almost willful ignorance, and that’s what I find disturbing,” Johnson fumed, caricaturing Carvajal’s response to BOP’s crises as: “‘Don’t want to know what’s happening below me. Don’t want to hear about rapes. Don’t want to hear about suicides.’”
“It’s a disgrace,” Ossoff agreed. “And for the answer to be ‘other people deal with that. I got the report. I don’t remember.’ It’s completely unacceptable.”
Peters, who has been credited with minor reforms at DOC, is no stranger to controversy herself. In 2020, she was forced to publicly apologize for the death of prisoner Michael Barton from a neglected case of the flu that staff then attempted to cover up, leading to a record $2.75 million settlement for his family. [See: PLN, Mar. 2021, p.48.]
Like Carvajal, Peters was also criticized for her response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in over 7,500 infections among DOC’s 14,000 prisoners and 4,700 staffers, more than 50 of whom have died. Nearly 50,000 of BOP’s 140,000 prisoners were infected on Carvajal’s watch, along with almost 14,000 of its 36,000 employees. Over 300 federal prisoners and seven staff members died.
Carvajal was also criticized for failing to implement the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice measure designed to improve prison programs and reduce sentencing disparities.
Under Peters, DOC tried to adopt “the Oregon Way,” with a “smart on rehabilitation” culture modeled on progressive countries like Norway. But after planting a Japanese garden at the state penitentiary and swapping the term “inmate” for “adult in custody,” the state still lacks important offender programming, including any treatment for convicted sex offenders, who are more than 30% of its prisoners [See: PLN, May 2018, p.40.]
After Carvajal announced his retirement in January 2022, a bill was introduced in Congress to require Senate confirmation for the new BOP Director. It stalled, however, leaving Peters to take over the job without congressional scrutiny.
Sources: Associated Press, Eugene Register-Guard, Oregon Statesman Journal, Washington Post
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