JOHN KIRIAKOU: US Prison Chief’s Dim Prospects

If Colette Peters is really intent on cleaning up the U.S. Bureau of Prisons she has her work cut out for her.  Things are not going well on her watch so far.

Attorney General Merrick Garland officiates Colette Peters’ installment as director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons on Aug. 2, 2022. (Bureau of Prisons)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

In a previous column I recounted how I had recently had dinner with a friend who did two years in prison about 15 years ago and who then became an adviser to the director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP.)

I told him that he was a bigger man than I, since I so despised the corruption and violence endemic in the BOP that I didn’t think I could ever work with them, even if it was to make the bureau a better place.

My friend said I had it all wrong. Colette Peters, the BOP’s director since August 2022, is an outsider who had success as the head of Oregon’s Department of Corrections. He told me she truly wanted to clean up the BOP, but that entrenched interests, including a former director who had risen up through the ranks and those around him, had blocked her.

My friend believed that, if Peters could clean out the remnants of the previous regime, she would revamp the BOP.

She has her work cut out for her. Things are already not going well on her watch. 

Mentally Ill Prisoner Beaten

On July 10, BOP guard Seth Bourget received a sentence of a year and a day in prison plus two years of supervised release for beating a severely mentally ill prisoner with his knees and with a riot shield. The prisoner, who was handcuffed at the time, required 12 staples to close the gash on his head.

Two weeks later, another guard at the same prison, FMC (Federal Medical Center) Danvers, pleaded guilty to accepting $140,000 in bribes from a prisoner with “ultra high net worth” in exchange for giving the prisoner a plum work assignment.

In June, a BOP guard, Lt. Shronda Covington, and a BOP nurse, Tonya Farley, both employed at FCI (Federal Correctional Institution) Petersburg, were indicted on charges of violating the civil rights of a prisoner, filing a false report, and lying to investigators in an attempt to cover up their complicity in the death of a prisoner. 

Heart Attack Ignored

The prisoner, Wade Waters, was serving an 18-year sentence on a charge of having committed health care fraud. He told Covington and Farley that he was having a heart attack, but they ignored him multiple times. He was found dead in his bunk the next morning at the age of 47. The two face sentences of up to life in prison.

In July, FCI Petersburg Lt. Michael Anderson pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of prisoner “W.W.” Another guard told Anderson that W.W. was experiencing a medical emergency. Anderson said that he would get help, but instead simply returned to his office without notifying medical staff, obtaining a medical assessment, contacting the prison’s on-call physician or notifying any other staff members. W.W. lay on the ground, either dead or dying, for nearly two hours.

When another guard finally entered the cell, W.W. was dead. Anderson faces a sentence of up to life in prison.

Rape by BOP Employees

Aerial view of Federal Correctional Institution Dublin in California. (Prison Insight/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report in December 2022 that found that BOP employees have raped prisoners in two-thirds of prisons across the country. In one prison, FCI Dublin in California, seven staff members were successfully prosecuted for raping so many prisoners that the facility was dubbed “The Rape Club.” Warden Ray Garcia received 70 months in prison. Even the chaplain was successfully prosecuted for rape, receiving a sentence of 83 months in prison.

This is just a small sampling of what has happened inside the BOP in the past year. During that same time, the Justice Department’s Inspector General (IG) released a report finding “four foundational, enterprise-wide challenges” confronting the BOP.

They are:

  • “Weaknesses in the BOP’s internal audit function, which may result in audit ratings not accurately reflecting conditions at institutions.” Let me put that into English. BOP employees are stealing literally everything they can get their hands on, while the BOP auditors are saying in writing that there isn’t a problem. When I served a 23-month sentence at FCI Loretto, the commissary was repeatedly closed because the guards had stolen everything from it. Nobody ever even attempted to stop them.
  • “The BOP has not been able to effectively investigate employee misconduct cases due to insufficient investigative staffing.” I’m sorry to say that I need to be a little harsher here. It’s not just “insufficient investigative staffing” that’s the problem. It’s that the investigators the BOP has are either too stupid, too lazy, or too corrupt to get the job done. If the BOP wants it done right, leadership needs to bring in outside investigators, rather than to reward failure by promoting guards to investigators.

 Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. (AgnosticPreachersKid, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

  • “The BOP does not fully understand its staffing needs.” Sure it does. The real problem here is in many cases only the dregs of society want to be prison guards. The only requirements, literally, are that you must have either a high-school diploma or a GED and you must not have been convicted of a felony. Pay starts at barely over the minimum wage, so the job attracts people who couldn’t make it through the local police academy or who washed out of the military. Dr. Peter Moskos, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, said in his book In Defense of Flogging that the BOP is nothing more than an employment agency for undereducated, unemployed, rural white men. That’s the problem. 
  • “The BOP lacks an infrastructure strategy, exacerbating its infrastructure challenges and creating significant management issues.” Yes, many federal prisons are falling apart. And they’re falling apart because the BOP uses slave labor to maintain them. I refused to do it. Thousands of other prisoners do, too.

On the (barely) positive side, there are two U.S. senators who are taking these issues seriously. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have held hearings on the BOP’s dysfunction, and Ossoff successfully pushed a bipartisan bill into law a year ago to install working cameras in every federal prison in America. Can you believe that it took an act of Congress to do something so basic and so essential? And that’s considered a major victory.

I hope my friend is right that Collette Peters wants to be the best BOP director ever. I wish her well. I think she’ll fail. The corruption, the laziness, and the criminal tendencies of so many BOP employees run so deep that I don’t think anything will change short of the bureau being scrapped, and that will never happen. In the meantime, the rest of us will have to hold them to account.

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act — a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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9 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: US Prison Chief’s Dim Prospects

  1. Valerie
    October 25, 2023 at 20:50

    A UK prison perspective:




  2. daryl rush
    October 25, 2023 at 00:47

    Our “society” certainly knows how to implement hell on earth. Torture is common place, in prisons, on homeless on our streets, what a quarter of our people starving and the rest of us eating unhealthy food, As we spread chemicals upon our earth.
    This all by design, so we can afford the luxury of a billionaire class.

  3. Lois Gagnon
    October 24, 2023 at 22:44

    The misery index climes in proportion to the downward spiral of empire. But Russia! But China! But Iran! But terrorism! But…… Make it stop.

  4. Jeff Harrison
    October 24, 2023 at 19:51

    That’s truly scary, John. I really don’t want to see my fellow citizens subjected to that kind of treatment especially since our “justice” system probably puts any number of innocent people in the slammer.

  5. Fritz
    October 24, 2023 at 18:43

    The comment section following John Kiriakou’s essay about the BoP’s depraved dysfunctions is empty and that reason could probably be summed up by:

    “They don’t care about you at all… at all… AT ALL. And nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care. […]
    It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
    — George Carlin

  6. peterbv
    October 24, 2023 at 18:14

    If you want to see the dregs of society go to the local prison and watch the guard change

  7. Sharon Aldrich
    October 24, 2023 at 17:15

    This is shameful, sad and disgraceful! Are our politicians able to do anything right for anyone but their corporate donors? Thank you, John for bringing this to our attention.

  8. Anon
    October 24, 2023 at 16:46

    For quite a while this commenter has believed that Fed legislated over sentencing from the Clinton / Gingrich years (& its proven racial disparity) serves a Single Purpose: stick the next youthful Martin Luther King behind bars along with depriving this individual of career educational opportunity…

  9. Robert
    October 24, 2023 at 15:40

    Sodom and Gomorrah, got nothing on the United States of America…

Comments are closed.