The head of US prisons insists before a Senate committee that there is a “clear change” in the system
WASHINGTON — The head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons on Wednesday explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee how she has sought to improve the nation’s troubled prison system, answering Republican questions about transgender inmates.
“Developing real change across the agency is not something that happens in an instant,” Colette Peters, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said in her opening statement.
“Change requires focus, effort, and perseverance over time. I believe that our efforts over the past year have brought about clear change, and our work continues.
Last year, Peters said, she visited more than 20 facilities and worked to address employee misconduct and “hold accountable those involved in the misconduct.”
Peters testified before the same committee nearly a year ago. During that session, she emphasized that issues of employment and sexual harassment in facilities would be priorities for her leadership at the agency.
Wednesday’s hearing also came a day after several senators, including West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, wrote a letter to Peters and Attorney General Merrick Garland asking them to investigate. In serious allegations regarding misconduct of employees and officials. Mistreatment of prisoners at a federal prison in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia.
During the Senate hearing, Democrats focused on changes made by the Bureau of Prisons, particularly in light of investigations that found inmates were sexually assaulted by staff, and what resources the agency provides inmates, such as prenatal care.
Nearly every Republican questioned Peters about transgender inmates, specifically asking about transgender women in prisons that house female inmates.
About 1,700 inmates identify as transgender, Peters said. She said there are fewer than 10 transgender women incarcerated in facilities that house incarcerated women. Nearly 158,000 people are detained in federal prison facilities, according to Bureau of Prisons statistics.
The GOP senators who asked Peters about incarcerated transgender women were the committee’s top Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Thom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Mike Lee of Utah.
Tillis pressed for data on how many incarcerated transgender people received medical care for their gender-affirming care. He cited the specific case of Donna Langan, who became the first transgender person to receive gender confirmation surgery in federal prison.
Peters said she was not aware of the case mentioned by Tillis.
“It would be difficult for me to find someone who was convicted of a crime to then get taxpayer money to allow this turnaround when we heard about all the limited resources of the hardworking people at the FBI.” “Prisons,” Tillis said.
The committee’s Democratic chairman, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, criticized those Republicans who brought up transgender care.
“We are talking about the safety of all prisoners, regardless of whether they are cisgender or transitioning,” he said.
When Peters took office, she had a reputation as a “fixer,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia.
Ossoff led an investigation in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where the committee found that incarcerated women had been sexually assaulted in two-thirds of Bureau of Prisons institutions. He asked what steps the agency had taken to end sexual assaults on prisoners.
There is a “cultural assessment at all of our women’s facilities,” Peters said.
She said: “The most important thing we have done is to work to hold those involved in these violations accountable.”
Durbin said he is concerned about the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, expressing disappointment that since Peters took office, the numbers of people incarcerated in solitary confinement have not changed.
“We both know that locking someone in a cell for more than 22 hours a day is not going to make them a good neighbor,” he said. “Since our oversight hearing last September, we have not seen any decrease in the number of people in solitary confinement in federal prisons.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked about prenatal care for pregnant inmates.
Peters said that in February 2022, guidance was issued so that staff would ensure that “pregnant or postpartum women are not restrained” and that “women have the opportunity to communicate with their babies.”
She also mentioned a partnership in Washington state that created a parenting program.
Klobuchar also asked about those with high-risk pregnancies and whether they were transferred to facilities that could care for them. Peters said there is a special facility to care for those with high-risk pregnancies.
Gangs and smuggling
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, pressed Peters on security measures to stop smuggling and prevent gangs from engaging in illegal activities in federal prisons.
He asked Peters whether she thought increasing penalties for smuggled goods would be an appropriate deterrent.
“I think every tool needs to be taken into consideration in order to combat this important (problem) of smuggled goods, and I think this will be an additional tool in our toolbox,” she said.
Grassley also asked Peters if she knew “whether our government shares information about our prison plans” with foreign governments, such as Mexico.
Peters said she would look into it and let him know what she finds.
“We want these floor plans to be very safe,” she said. “Releasing anything like this would be a serious security concern.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, also expressed concern about the use of drones to smuggle contraband into prisons.
Peters said it’s a problem and that there are many technological maneuvers the office is involved in, such as jamming cellular signals and tracking cellular communications in certain locations.
“With drones, the technology is constantly changing, and we’re just trying to stay ahead of this changing technology,” Peters said.