Q&A: Rare interview with BOP Director Colette Peters about the culture at Dublin prison
OAKLAND, Calif. - Colette Peters, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, toured the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin earlier this month to see for herself if the culture and behaviors at the beleaguered facility has changed – and if it hasn't, how she could work to fix it.
FCI Dublin has employed the most officers charged with sex abuse in the nation. In March, former FCI Dublin Warden Ray Garcia was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for sexually abusing several women in his care.
Peters was chosen in July to head up the troubled BOP and this fall, she promised U.S. senators to make changes across the penitentiary system.
On Friday, Peters sat down with KTVU for a rare interview to discuss her perception of the current culture now at the prison, which has been described as a toxic place of "cultural rot," by community members, Congress and a federal judge.
Peters spoke from Washington, D.C. on Zoom. (The Q&A has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.)
Q: I understand that you were just at FCI Dublin. Could you give us a brief synopsis of your visit and how did things look to you there?
Peters: It really was an excellent visit. It was a full day visit where we were able to talk to the women in our custody, talk to our employees, and spend time with the executive team. We're really seeing some exceptional progress happen at that institution. And I'm just I'm really proud of the work that people are doing. I know that culture change is hard, but I think we have the right executive team in place and they're certainly making the change happen.
Q: You want to give one or two examples of what you saw?
Peters: I think what we've kind of observed in the past few months and certainly saw the benefits of that on site is people are feeling supported. (Peters then discussed bringing in an external contractor to promote a "culture of safety," new programming and more recreation time.)
Q: People want to know, are you thinking about shutting [FCI Dublin] down?
Peters: We are not considering shutting down at this time. I'm feeling really good about the cultural enhancements that are happening now.
Q: Then how come you won't let us tour it? We've repeatedly asked. We'd like to see it.
Peters: The decision is up to the warden and I support her. It's just the time is not now. The people are still healing. The women in our custody are still healing. And while we are wanting to be as transparent as possible and that's a clear message that I've sent to all of our wardens, that the timing is just not now.
Q: Can you say how many new cameras have gone up?
Peters: Now we have a total of 235 fully operational cameras that are up and running.
Q: We're going to move on to the category of sexual abuse. Women still don't have a confidential hotline or way to report the abuse. Do you have a solution to how they can report abuse confidentially?
Peters: So they actually do have that ability. And the deputy attorney general and I actually got on and walked through the steps ourselves. So they're able to log on to TrueLinks and send an anonymous email directly to the Inspector General's office themselves. So they do have that ability. They also have a phone number that they can call. It's Crime Stoppers and I saw the number up on the wall, so it's clearly visible.
Q: Is it unmonitored? Meaning like there's a guarantee no one will be listening in?
Peters: They actually use the normal phone that they would use to call their mom. So nobody would be suspicious that they were. It's just a different number that they're dialing. And I actually called that number myself prior to my visit to Dublin just to see what the response would be like and asked the individual who picked up the phone to pretend they were a woman in custody and walk me through the steps. (The BOP team said they are checking to see if the phone line is unmonitored. They said the email system is unmonitored.)
In a followup email, the BOP clarified what unmonitored means. This is the agency's emailed response.
The women at Dublin who wish to report sexual abuse, anonymously to all BOP and FCI Dublin staff, may also call Tri-Valley Haven directly.
Prior to this past week, the women at Dublin could request an unmonitored call through their unit team staff that would allow them to call either their attorney or Tri-Valley Haven.
This has long been the practice for how adults in custody request attorney/legal phone calls. All legal calls are unmonitored. Therefore, [the women] had the ability to call their attorney or Tri-Valley Haven, and the staff at Dublin was not able to know which number the [woman] was calling. Again, all of these calls are unmonitored and anonymous to FCI Dublin and BOP staff.
However, in an effort to further ensure anonymity, starting this past week, [the women] at Dublin no longer need to request an unmonitored call through their unit team staff.
Rather, [they] now have access to a phone room where they may dial one of many preprogrammed/approved phone numbers.
One of the preprogrammed phone numbers is that of Tri-Valley Haven. The women may now enter the phone room without first receiving permission from staff and anonymously call either an attorney's office or Tri-Valley Haven, and every call is unmonitored.
Regarding unmonitored emails to the [Office of the Inspector General,] inmates may email the Office of Inspector General directly. These emails are not searchable or traceable by BOP staff, including staff at FCI Dublin.
Q: We still continue to get emails and calls from women inside, from their boyfriends, from their mothers who say that things haven't changed. A man called me last month say his girlfriend was being groped and molested and thrown in the Special Housing Unit. And then on the day before your visit, she was transferred. I'm hearing anecdotally that retaliation is still happening. So there is a discrepancy.
Peters: Culture change takes time. But we are not hearing those types of reporting. We would want to know that we would want to investigate it. We take every report of sexual misconduct very seriously, and that's certainly not what the women in custody were portraying to me during my visit.
Q: Do you acknowledge that retaliation [is still occurring]?
Peters: I have been very clear that retaliation will not happen on my watch. It's one of the things that we have talked about both times. We have to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable coming forward when they see something that's happening, something that doesn't look right, sound right, including the women in our custody. And I think that's what a lot of our trauma-informed, gender-responsive training is doing. I think that's a lot of the work that the consultant is doing to help us to really create that transparent, open culture. And retaliation cannot be a part of that.
Q: I hear what you're saying. But I am hearing from in the last month, 100 people have told their lawyers they have suffered abuse or retaliation. They have been put in solitary confinement, they've been transferred, they've been strip searched, they've been drug tested and other disciplinary measures, and that enough changes haven't been made at the top.
Peters: I would say it's being alleged to have happened. So any of that information that you have, we would want to know. We would want to investigate it. And if we find that someone has retaliated, they will be held accountable.
Q: Let's move on to compassionate release [for sexual abuse survivors.] What's your stance on compassionate release for these women?
Peters: That's something that both myself and the bureau and the deputy attorney general's office wants us to take into consideration. So we are going to review those cases as they come to us. Now, compassionate release, as you know, is ultimately up to the judge, but we are able to make those recommendations, and I certainly am open to making recommendations when the appropriate case comes forward for review.
Q: But have you received any? Can you give me any numbers?
Peters: No, I don't think we'd be able to speak to individual cases or numbers at this time.
Q: I know Centro Legal has been talking to your office as well about signing U-visas for women who have been helpful to the government [to help them not be deported.] I don't think you've signed any visas at this point, but will you consider it? Why aren't you signing visas for the women who have been helpful in court or just providing information?
Peters: We don't have the authority on who is ultimately going to be deported. I don't know.
In a followup email, the BOP sent this response:
Regarding your question pertaining to U-Visas. While the director appreciates and supports the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, she has no authority to submit or approve a U-Visa.
It is the sole responsibility of the victim to apply for a U-Visa and for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to approve it. Form I-918B is a required piece of evidence the victim needs to submit, but this certification is completed by the certifying agency involved in the detection, investigation, or prosecution of criminal activity.
The BOP lacks prosecution authority and likely criminal investigative authority as well, and therefore does not qualify as the "certifying agency."
While our internal investigation would assist with and ultimately provide evidence to be utilized in criminal prosecution, we are not the law enforcement agency that conducts the official investigation used for prosecution.
** In response, Centro Legal attorney Susan Beaty said the BOP's answer is "patently false and extremely frustrating."
U-visa certifications can be signed by any agency involved in the detection or investigation of criminal activity, Beaty said.
While it's true that BOP "lacks prosecution authority" they absolutely do have the authority to detect and investigate criminal activity, Beaty said. SIS's entire job is to "detect and investigate" criminal activity inside BOP facilities. CDCR officials routinely sign U-visa certifications, Beaty said. **
Q: As a law enforcement agency, you can sign a U-visa, which just starts the process. It just says, this person has been helpful to me. You can sign it. The U.S. attorney's office can sign it. A police officer can sign it. Nobody has yet. I'm just asking why?
Peters: We'll have to check with our lawyers. It's not something that the bureau has done. It's not a practice we've engaged in.
Q: Access to attorneys. What are you doing to ensure that legal advocates can schedule calls and visits in a timely manner?
Peters: Yes. So we are working diligently on that, not just at Dublin, but system-wide. We're working with Access to Justice, which is an organization inside the Department of Justice to really help us expand our ability to provide access to outside counsel boots on the ground at Dublin.
Q: Moving on to health and asbestos, women are complaining of respiratory problems. What are you doing to address these problems? They keep saying that they're being told to mop the floor and there's asbestos underneath. Can you address that?
Peters: So this is an old facility. And so absolutely, there are issues that need to be addressed, including the additional rain and storms that we've had. And so we have spent resources in the facility focusing on mold in some of our buildings and the institution. The safety department has ensured that all individuals are in our custody, are provided appropriate training for working around the world, working around some of these issues. But we know it is an issue. We're sending as many resources as possible to address our facilities issues.
Q: It appears from anecdotal reports from women that [conditions at the prison] are not any better. Are you saying that's not true? [But the] women say it's just as bad as it was. What do we do with these two things?
Peters: We want to take seriously any allegation of sexual abuse or retaliation, as you spoke to earlier. But that certainly is not my assessment as I toured and visited the facility two weeks ago.
Q: Anything else you'd like to say before we close?
Peters: I just think this is a really great opportunity to begin telling the story of change in Dublin. I think we want to ensure that this is one of our best run facilities and that we pull it out of the old culture and into the new. And I think we're on the right path to make that happen.
Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at email@example.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez
EDITOR'S NOTE: This Q&A was updated on April 18, 2023, after the BOP sent in clarifying responses to two questions. Centro Legal also submitted a reponse to one of the questions, calling the BOP's answer "patently false."