WASHINGTON – The director of the federal Bureau of Prisons is defending her decision to rally behind a high-ranking agency official who climbed the ranks after beating Black inmates in the 1990s, saying Tuesday that she feels he's shown contrition and deserves a second chance.
Colette Peters, making her first comments since The Associated Press published an investigation chronicling Thomas Ray Hinkle’s sordid past and subsequent promotions, said she met with Hinkle soon after starting as director in August and came away convinced that he should keep his job.
"He openly shared some of his past and has shared with me that he’s a changed man, that he’s not the person he was 25 years ago, and that he wants to spend the remainder of his career helping people understand not to make those exact same mistakes,” Peters said.
“It’s that type of behavior change that we’re looking for in both those in our custody and who work for us. Some, they don't get a second chance. But he owned it.”
Peters spoke with the AP after testifying Tuesday before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has spent months scrutinizing the Bureau of Prisons' inability to clamp down on rampant staff sexual misconduct.
Subcommittee Chairman Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., said the eight-month, bipartisan investigation — after the arrests of a warden and other workers at a federal women’s prison in Dublin, California — shows that the agency is “failing systemically” in its duty to protect female inmates from the “cruel and unusual punishment” of abuse at the hands of correctional workers.
The Bureau of Prisons’ inability to detect and prevent staff-on-inmate assaults has led to dozens of assaults and left some accused workers free to offend again, the subcommittee found. The findings echo common complaints about the agency's handing of sexual abuse and other staff misconduct, some of which has been detailed in AP reporting.
Among the subcommittee's other findings: Audits meant to ensure compliance with a federal prison rape prevention law have proven inadequate; inmates who report abuse often face retaliation; and the agency's internal affairs office is facing a backlog of 8,000 cases, including hundreds of sex abuse allegations. Peters said she's added 40 workers to the internal affairs office to process cases faster.
At the Dublin prison, the rape-prevention audits were being supervised by the former warden, Ray Garcia, who was convicted last week of abusing three inmates. At a prison in Coleman, Florida, where six have been accused of sexually abusing inmates since 2012, officials shipped all the female inmates away two days before they were to be interviewed by auditors.
“This situation is intolerable," Ossoff said. “Sexual abuse of inmates is a gross abuse of human and constitutional rights and cannot be tolerated by the United States Congress.”
Tuesday's hearing began with disturbing testimony from three victims of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse — women who say the Bureau of Prisons compounded their suffering by ignoring warning signs, enabling coverups and failing to equip prisons with practical tools, like functioning security cameras.
Carolyn Richardson recounted how a correctional officer at a federal lockup in New York City preyed on her visual impairment, sexually assaulting her after he brought her to medical appointments. Briane Moore, crying at times, said the prison captain who abused her had threatened to put her in solitary confinement or transfer her to another prison if she reported him.
Linda De La Rosa said the Bureau of Prisons “entirely failed” in allowing the correctional officer who attacked her and three other women in 2019 at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, to continue working despite previous allegations of sexual abuse. The officer, Christopher Goodwin, pleaded guilty in March and is serving 11 years in prison.
“The problem is the old boys club,” De La Rosa said. “Prison staff, managers, investigators, correctional officers — they all work together for years, if not decades. No one wants to rock the boat, let alone listen to female inmates. There is no objective, independent oversight.”
The AP does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, as Richardson, Moore and De La Rosa have done. All sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional employees enjoy substantial power over inmates, controlling every aspect of their lives from mealtime to lights out, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent.
Peters, who testified alongside Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, has vowed to change the culture that has enabled officers to sexually assault inmates. She reiterated the Bureau of Prisons' zero-tolerance policy for staff sexual misconduct and said she's urged transparency throughout the agency, so that she's not kept in the dark on any incidents that occur.
A Justice Department working group issued recommendations last month for curbing staff sexual misconduct. Among them: starting an anonymous abuse reporting process, overhauling investigations, seeking longer prison sentences for workers convicted of abuse and potentially granting early release to victimized inmates.
Peters, who visited Dublin early in her tenure, said the crisis there shows some prisons have been infected with a “culture of abuse and a culture of misconduct" and that “when it’s high-level officials engaging in these egregious criminal acts there’s clearly a culture” of abuse.
“That culture needs to be reset in order to ensure the safety and security of those in our care and custody,” Peters testified. “And I think we do have systemic changes in the works that will help us reset that culture there and throughout the federal Bureau of Prisons.”
As for Hinkle, Peters will face more questions about him this week when she meets with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin. The Illinois Democrat tweeted that he was “very concerned about the allegations” in the AP's article about Hinkle "and whether BOP will address abuses, prioritize safety, and improve their flawed approach to misconduct investigations.”
On Monday, prison workers and union officials picketed outside the agency's regional office in Stockton, California, and called on Peters to fire Hinkle and his boss, Regional Director Melissa Rios.
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