Prisons Bureau Chief Questioned On Reports Of Inmate Abuse

By Courtney Bublé | September 13, 2023, 6:13 PM EDT ·

The director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons faced questions from lawmakers on Wednesday about how the agency is working to address reports of sexual misconduct by inmates and employees following multiple investigations.

Director Colette Peters made it clear in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the BOP "strongly condemns all forms of sexual misconduct by those in our custody and our employees." She also underscored that the majority of employees are ethical and hardworking. Nevertheless, reforms are underway to address the issue, she said, among others implemented since she stepped into the role a little over a year ago.

During the hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, brought up a report the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general released last year finding there is "widespread" inmate-on-staff sexual harassment within the BOP, and female staff were most affected.

"Sexual misconduct by the individuals in our custody against our employees will not be tolerated," said Peters. She added she and the deputy attorney general have met with all U.S. attorneys multiple times to ask for criminal prosecutions for those incidents.

This was "to send a clear message" the agency will be holding them accountable administratively as well as criminally.

Grassley asked specifically about the watchdog's finding that the BOP's "tracking system did not always identify the gender of the victim, whether the victim was an inmate or staff member, and the specific inmate behavior within the BOP's prohibited act codes."

She said she was not able to answer immediately but would get back to him.

Later in the hearing, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., inquired about an investigation he led last year that found over the last decade, female inmates in at least two-thirds of the facilities that hold women were abused sexually by male prison employees, including those in senior positions.

Peters said over the last year, they have done culture assessments at all female facilities, brought in outside consultants to help do trauma-informed care and worked to hold offenders accountable. She also noted that in April, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco launched "sexual abuse facility evaluation and review" teams to visit women's facilities.

Ossoff also asked about the effectiveness of audits under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, noting the investigation found a facility in Florida and another in California passed their audits despite a "culture of abuse."

Peters said the law has done "great things," but "unfortunately, [it] doesn't predict future behavior." She also underscored the need to hire and train the right people.

Brandy Moore-White, president of the national union that represents BOP employees, told Law360 after the hearing that the former union president negotiated with agency leadership to establish a sexual harassment task force, which focuses on misconduct against employees. She added there is representation from the union, institutions and the agency.

There has been a years-long staffing crisis at the BOP, and the union believes more staff could help mitigate sexual misconduct, Moore-White said.

According to union briefing materials shared with Law360, inmates are already subject to internal agency discipline policies but "are rarely prosecuted by the attorney general for crimes against staff." It also says the union has been working with lawmakers on the possibility of creating a federal statute to hold offenders accountable and mandate federal prosecution.

As for staff-on-inmate assaults, Moore-White said the union's stance has always been if there is misbehavior, process should be followed, while adding she doesn't think it's as "rampant" as some media reports make it out to be.

--Editing by Philip Shea.

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