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Federal Bureau of Prisons’ “Mess Up, Move Up” Culture Rewards and Promotes Abusive Employee

by Casey J. Bastian

An AP News investigation focused on U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) employee Thomas Ray Hinkle found evidence of a rotten culture in the federal prison system. In recent years the BOP has come under intense Congressional scrutiny over allegations of staff physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, as well as dozens of prisoner escapes and deaths. Like many other prison systems, BOP also faces a significant short-staffing problem. Many times, the worst employees seem to get rewarded for their misconduct through promotions into positions of authority. One of those benefitting from this “mess up, move up” culture appears to be Hinkle.

The investigation into Hinkle arose after he was brought in to “restore order and trust” as Warden at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Dublin, California. The previous warden and four other employees have been convicted of sexually abusing women held at the prison. [See: PLN, Feb. 2023, p.62.]

 Hinkle vowed that the prison would “regain its reputation” under his watch. Instead, staffers claim his two-month stint as warden “left the facility even more tattered.” At the beginning of his short tenure, he raised eyebrows by describing the victimization of female prisoners as “consensual sex” – despite law that clearly states there can never be consent in sexual relations between staff and prisoners. Hinkle was also accused of attempting to silence a whistleblower and trying to intimidate staff into silence about misconduct as well.

New BOP Director Colette Peters vowed “to root out staff misconduct and other concerns,” but she has defended Hinkle. Though he previously admitted being part of a violent guard group known as the “original cowboys” from the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in Florence, Colorado, Peters praised Hinkle for “acknowledge[ing] his past mistakes,” seeking “professional help” and “reframe[ing] his experiences as learning opportunities” for young guards.

In 1993, Hinkle and his fellow “cowboys” in the guard ranks at the Florence lockup wore matching hats and left cowboy medallions as “calling cards” for prisoners who “needed to be taught a lesson” with abuse. At least 11 guards were indicted and put on trial. One, David Armstrong, who was “once one of the most prominent Cowboys,” became their chief accuser. When confronted with accusations of misconduct, the group’s motto was “lie ‘til you die.” Armstrong said, “I was so used to not telling the truth. That’s just the way it was.” Three of the rogue guards were eventually convicted. Four were acquitted. Four pleaded guilty and entered cooperation agreements with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. [See: PLN, Nov. 2004, p.26.]

Three of his fellow “cowboys” accused Hinkle personally of being involved in beating prisoners. Yet Hinkle was promoted – twice – even before the investigation was over. In 2013, he became a deputy captain at the Federal Correctional Complex in Forrest City, Arkansas. In 2016, he became an assistant administrator at BOP headquarters in Washington, DC, setting policy and overseeing operations at all 122 BOP facilities. And in 2018, Hinkle was placed in charge of USP in Thomson, Illinois – whose Special Management Unit was recently slated for closure due to its corrupt and toxic culture of prisoner abuse.

Hinkle’s biggest promotion came in 2020, when he was given a deputy regional director spot. During a meeting with Melissa Rios, the new western regional director at that time, Hinkle admitted his conduct at Florence. Those in the room were reportedly “puzzled” that he seemed to brag: “I’m one of the original cowboys from Florence. We were abusing inmates.”

AP News found that most fellow employees called Hinkle a “foul-mouthed bully” who leads through “fear and intimidation.” Aaron McGlothin, President of the guards’ union at FCC – Mendota in California, said: “I’ve never heard one positive thing about the guy.” California Democratic Representative Jackie Speier called Hinkle a “thug.” In return, he tried to block Speier from speaking directly to the victims of sexual abuse at FCI-Dublin.

While acknowledging “past mistakes,” Hinkle was quick to point out that “[w]e are all human and make mistakes. There is no shame in admitting our problems and seeking help.” If only he had embraced that attitude with the prisoners that he and others admitted abusing for years. Maybe BOP needs to admit its mistakes and seek help, too.

In May 2023, Hinkle will reach mandatory retirement age and step down.

Sources: AP News

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