Our Voices > Reform Debate

Dear Collette Peters

Sep 30, 2022

By Rob Barton

Congratulations on your appointment as director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). I have been intensely following the changing of the guard at the top of the agency, and I genuinely wish you success. After all, the person who holds this position has a huge effect on my life.

I am 43 years old and have been incarcerated since two months after my 16th birthday; I’ve bounced around about 10 federal prisons since 2002 (after the District of Columbia closed its Lorton prison and transferred us all to BOP custody). I’d say that makes me a bit of an expert on your new agency. I’m sure you’ll be talking to a lot of people to get their advice in these first months, but I wonder if you’ll sit down with any prisoners? Especially a “violent offender” like me? (By the way, I have evolved a lot in the last couple of decades; when will I stop being labeled “violent”? That’s why I want to give a big shout out to Sen. Richard Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for proclaiming his faith in the universal opportunity for redemption, at this week’s BOP oversight hearing. That’s not a popular point of view.)

I am relieved that although you spent the last 10 years heading a prison system (Oregon state), you did not come up through the “good old boy” ranks of the federal BOP, like your predecessor. I also hear you are a “visionary” reformer. If that is true, I applaud you. But forgive me for not being ready to give up my skepticism. You’re taking the helm of a network of 122 different institutions. Yes, they are all part of the BOP, but I’ve been housed in nearly a dozen of them, and in each, the staff had the attitude that they were their own fiefdom. My comrades at FCI Hazelton, one of the prisons closest to DC, tell me that when they cite the BOP program statement when complaining about staff behavior, the correctional officers reply, “This isn’t the BOP. This is Hazelton.”

You heard from Shane Fausey, president of the Council of Prison Locals, that the large majority of correctional officers are “extraordinary human beings who would instantly sacrifice their lives for their fellow officers, and in some instances, risk their own peril for complete strangers.” Of course there are some correctional officers who see and care about us as human beings, but notice that Mr. Fausey didn’t say they would sacrifice their lives for the prisoners they are charged with supervising. Instead, he describes correctional professionals as “the last line of defense between good and evil”—with those of us behind the bars being the evil. I know most of us are in prison for committing wrongs, some of them grievous. But we are human, and often shaped by trauma that started young.

You heard a taste of how most of us experience those “extraordinary human beings” from Cecilia Cardenas, who testified at the hearing that, “The culture in the institutions I served at was toxic and inappropriate. Correctional officers are free to do whatever they please regardless of written policy, and many harass prisoners.” However, that portion of her comments was not given much attention. So, let me add to her voice and give you a view of what federal prison is like from this side.

Walk in my shoes

I have been shackled and chained so that the cuffs are so tight they left permanent scars on my body as well as my spirit.

I have sat in cells in the SHU [solitary confinement] and the SMU [a special prison for those considered “problems”], forced to sit helplessly by while grown men cry out while they are tortured by the very people whose job is to protect them. Usually, these unfortunate individuals were targeted for violating a rule, whether minor or major.

I have watched people die after being denied proper medical treatment.

I have watched both adult continuing education and certification courses be cut back again and again, with guys turned away from the few that are offered because their sentences are too long. They’re told they don’t deserve rehabilitation because it would be a waste.

I have seen officers verbally abuse and threaten prisoners, knowing that we have no effective reprieve. [As we document in our recent report, the internal complaint system is too easily manipulated and often results in retaliation against the user.]

I have suffered through three- to six-month lockdowns that had nothing to do with security and everything to do with punishment.

I have watched several guys be severely maimed or killed from prison violence caused by prison politics—politics that is promoted by the wardens themselves. At orientation (when we first enter a prison), they tell us that, “I see the Blacks sitting over there with the Blacks, the Whites with the Whites, and that’s good because it helps me do my job. I don’t care what you do to one another, as long as you don’t put your hands on one of my officers.”

This all stems from a corrosive, permeating culture that teaches officers from the time they are cadets that prisoners are the enemies. Fraternization is forbidden. How can you do your job and help your “enemy”? You can’t.

We, on the other hand, come to prison already hating the police (the way we see staff). So, how we are treated only exacerbates these pre-existing biases.

What it will take to reform this beast

It’s going to take a lot more than executive orders to change a culture like that. We need to go back to basics and start with the foundation of it all: Why and how do we incarcerate in the United States? Is it only to punish? Is it to warehouse us for as long as our sentences? It sure doesn’t seem to be to rehabilitate. The entire system is counterproductive to stopping recidivism when we are released back into society. I didn’t truly realize this until I was sent from the feds back to the DC jail for a court hearing. I can clearly remember arriving at the jail and an officer who knew me from back in the day spoke to me as he simultaneously stuck his hand out for me to shake. I looked at his hand like it was a snake. I’d just come a from a place where officers didn’t fraternize with “inmates.” My own behavior soon changed as I was immersed in that different culture, where the officers treated us humanely, we considered ourselves “human” and thus learned to see staff in a different light.

You see, due to the divide between officers and prisoners in the feds, we are forced into a subculture in which we rarely deal with anyone outside of our peer group. Distorted views, creeds and values form and persist because there is no one in our circle to challenge them. So, we spend years reconfirming bad social etiquette and criminal thoughts/ideas.

In contrast, when I was at the jail, I was able to step outside of my normal peer group and it changed my life. As part of the Georgetown Prison Scholar program, I was in university classes with both outside and inside students, discussing our worldviews. Sometimes it was like I was watching and listening to myself as I realized there were flaws in my thought patterns. I found myself in a meeting with executive staff about how we could help the younger guys or make the jail a better place, and realized these were my “coworkers,” people I’d probably deal with once I was free and in a job setting.

These are the types of mindsets and activities needed in the feds. We need more programming, for everyone—not just those in for nonviolent crimes and close to release (do you want a peaceful environment inside or not?). As Ms. Cardenas also said, we need more opportunities to develop skills that are actually marketable, like coding.  We need more contact with people from the outside world to enhance our social skills and reestablish a feeling of connection. We need to be treated humanely and not like animals!

It is going to be hard to set policies that are implemented in both spirit and letter at each prison when these places are used to doing their own thing. Too often, one prison’s problems are “fixed” by shifting them to another (witness the closing of USP Lewisburg’s SMU program, with the same issues now reported at Thomson). This is why I’m glad you are supporting Sen. Ossuf’s bill calling for Office of Inspector General inspections of the prisons, and the establishment of an ombudsman’s office. I’d go further and recommend that you create an advisory body that also includes “inmates” like me. After all, these prisons are our “homes” for now. And we don’t want to be miserable. Let us help you make them places of rehabilitation, not warehouses where violence festers.

Support the Ossof bill! Contact your congresspeople today.

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