The longtime leader of Oregon’s prison system, Colette Peters, takes over a much bigger job this week as the new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the bureau, called Peters a changemaker, pointing to her track record in the state as well as a model she developed called the “Oregon Way,” which aimed to shed the traditional punitive culture of prison.
But the state’s prison system is still rife with problems.
A massive class action lawsuit over the agency’s response to the pandemic has been filed against the state. Peters’ tenure was also marked by high-profile sexual assault scandals and allegations of retaliation — both towards staff as well as those in custody.
And while supporters say she’s a reform-minded leader with a vision for improving prisons, detractors say she’s all talk and has made little progress on her stated goals during her decade running the Oregon Department of Corrections.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to make Peters available for an interview. But during her tenure in Oregon, Peters talked frequently about her efforts to not only humanize incarcerated people but also to improve staff wellness.
“Crime and punishment is difficult, it’s emotional and it can create fear if you are a victim of crime,” Peters told OPB’s Think Out Loud in 2019. “And while I cannot change the crime victim that was created, when those individuals [who committed crimes] first come to us, our job is to make that life more normal, more humane inside, so that when they leave and become our neighbors they are good neighbors and they don’t commit more crime.”
Even her supporters say the vision never translated into tangible rules and specific policies.
“She gets certainly some credit for thinking about prison in a different way, in a more humanistic way, in this ‘Oregon Way,’ sure but she didn’t finish the job,” said Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland who runs a clinic that represents dozens of people in the state’s prison system.
“Just because Oregon’s prisons are better than Louisiana’s, that doesn’t matter,” Kaplan said. “You don’t get points for that. You get points for having creative ideas, putting them in place and following through.”
Others who worked with Peters see her time in the state as more productive than that.
“Her constant recognition that the people in the system are actually people is a legacy that she can be proud of,” said Jennifer Williamson, a former Democratic lawmaker turned lobbyist who oversaw the budget for the Oregon Department of Corrections. “It’s still a prison system and prison system in the United States and so there is plenty to be more than concerned about. We have incredibly brutal systems in this country. And she recognizes that. She runs one.”
For Williamson, who is a progressive, and others who know Peters and have worked closely with her, the Biden administration is sending a clear message with this hire: They want to make change in the federal prison system.
“Tragically, the system is falling apart,” said Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender. “The staffing is atrocious, the access to medical care and nutrition and healthful meals has fallen off.”
Hay represents people incarcerated at federal prisons across the country. She does not know Peters personally but said she’s about to take on a near impossible task.
“There are a number of health and safety issues she’ll have to address right away,” Hay said.
In a statement, Attorney General Merrick Garland called Peters uniquely qualified to take on those tasks. The Justice Department did not respond to requests to further discuss Peters’ hire.
Back in 2017 and 2018 Peters traveled with lawmakers to Norway to tour their prison system, which is run with an entirely different philosophy than the one that guides American imprisonment. Peters spoke about it on OPB’s Think Out Loud in 2019.
“While safety and security is their utmost responsibility as it is here in Oregon, their goal is to create a prison environment that mirrors the community,” Peters said. “And so their prison environments are beautiful. There are trees and plants and pictures and art in a way that does normalize that environment. Not just for those that are incarcerated, but for those who are working there.”
Some lauded her interest in reform and her efforts to improve life for people in custody and prison employees. But others felt such efforts failed.
“As far as things she’s done well, honestly I can’t think of anything,” said Bobbin Singh, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit that has sued Peters and the state’s prisons system repeatedly over cases of abuse and retaliation.
“Could you have swapped her out for someone who did absolutely nothing, just acted in a neutral position and gotten the same result?” Singh asked rhetorically. “I mean, probably.”
Peters faced a number of extreme challenges during her tenure, including the wildfires of 2020 that engulfed the state and forced the Department of Corrections to evacuate several prisons. Reports of prisoners stuck in buses, with their hands zip-tied, urinating and defecating into their pants, did nothing to help her image as a reformer.
In 2020, Peters discussed the unprecedented evacuation with OPB — acknowledging the bureau’s response had problems.
“But a whole lot did go well,” she said at the time. “We successfully transported thousands of individuals across the state … safely. Nobody was injured. Nobody went missing.”
Singh said nobody in custody going missing while in custody isn’t a high standard. But his main complaint about Peters is that she failed to fully engage state lawmakers and advocate for the resources needed to make dramatic improvements to the state’s prisons.
“You never hear her say ‘we need these things to treat people better,’” Singh said. In “the vast majority of presentations she is always defending the agency. There’s always a lack of transparency and high-level talk that tries to portray the agency as: ‘Everything is OK.’ And to me, that is the greatest failure.”
Peters will now run a much larger agency where everything is decidedly not OK. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is responsible for 150,000 people in custody across some 300 prisons and community housing facilities.
Right now, the federal agency isn’t even using the tools it has at its disposal to improve its system, according to Alison Guernsey, director of the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Iowa School of Law.
Guernsey said ensuring federal prisons are using the tools Congress has given them should be a priority for Peters. For example, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has struggled to implement the First Step Act — a bipartisan effort passed by Congress in 2018 to allow people the ability to complete their sentences at home, if they’re nonviolent.
“Decarceration is incredibly urgent,” Guernsey said. “And I think that for public health reasons. I also think that for human rights reasons.”
Guernsey also said Peters should quickly address the Bureau’s culture, which she says lacks humanity.
“There isn’t a culture of treating the people we have in prison as people first,” she said. ”They are treated as inmates, they’re treated as offenders, they are treated as defendants.”
They’re treated, Guernsey said, as anything but fellow human beings.
Despite Peters’ mixed marks in Oregon, advocates are hopeful the new leader of the nation’s largest incarceration system can make some of the changes she tried to institute here.