September 29, 2022

Durbin Questions New BOP Director During Senate Judiciary Committee Oversight Hearing

Director Peters testified before Congress for the first time since taking over as head of the Bureau

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned Colette Peters, the new Director at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.” Durbin began his questioning by asking about solitary confinement. Research has shown that solitary confinement has severe physical and mental health consequences and that the practice has little effect on maintaining safety in correctional facilities.

Explaining that while solitary confinement can be necessary in some circumstances, Durbin noted that, “It can also be abused. It can cause mental damage to the inmate who is separated from contact with other people for long periods of time.” He went on to ask Director Peters about her feeling on the issue.

Director Peters replied that addressing solitary confinement is a priority as the new BOP Director. She confirmed, “research has shown again and again that any type of restrictive housing can be damaging to an individual, especially those that have mental health issues.” Unfortunately, after the Obama Administration took steps to reform and reduce BOP’s use of solitary confinement, the rate of incarcerated individuals in BOP’s restricted housing units increased during the Trump Administration and remains at unacceptably high levels today.

Today, Durbin and Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) reintroduced legislation to reduce BOP’s use of solitary confinement and improve conditions for inmates separated from the general prison population. The Solitary Confinement Reform Act limits solitary confinement to the briefest term and under the least restrictive conditions possible, because the overuse of solitary confinement threatens public safety, strains prison budgets, and violates fundamental human rights.

Durbin then shifted his questions to focus on abuse in prisons. Last year, the Associated Press reported that since 2019, more than 100 federal prison workers have been arrested, charged, or convicted of crimes, including sexual abuse, murder, and introducing contraband into prison.

“Tell us how you will deal with that aspect, and whether it reflects other problems such as understaffing,”Durbin asked.

Director Peters confirmed that abuse will not be tolerated and that it was critical to ensure that people “who did engage with this type of behavior were handled, and held accountable to the greatest extent of the law.” 

Durbin then highlighted the need to implement adequate oversight of the Inmate Trust Program, including how it has benefitted Larry Nassar, who abused young Olympic gymnasts for years. Nassar held over $12,825 in his prison trust account despite owing $60,000 in restitution payments to his victims. BOP promised to revamp the program and increase oversight, but a new report from the Washington Post last month indicated that R. Kelly held over $28,000 in his inmate account while owing thousands of dollars in restitution to his victims. 

“What's wrong with the system? Why are we letting these people sit on sums of money, or receive money from the federal government, when they're not paying their fines?” Durbin asked.

Peters stated that BOP, along with the Department of Justice and other government agencies, are working on efforts to increase those restitution collection amounts, and a proposed regulation is currently under review right now at DOJ. 

Durbin concluded, “If you believe that we need to change the law so that you can effectively achieve what you just described, let us know that. I think there is a strong bipartisan sentiment that this is an outrage, that Dr. Nassar would have $12,000 in the accounts, still have fines that he hasn't paid, or that R. Kelly still hasn’t paid restitution to victims. We would be complicit in that kind of conduct. That is absolutely unacceptable.” 

Durbin called for a new, reform-minded Director to replace former BOP Director Carvajal back in November 2021, following an Associated Press report that found that BOP is a “hotbed of abuse, graft and corruption, and has turned a blind eye to employees accused of misconduct.”  Carvajal’s resignation was announced less than two months later.   

For years, Durbin has sought to address the injustices and challenges that impact the daily lives of incarcerated Americans and their families—along with the staff responsible for protecting both the people incarcerated in our federal prisons and the communities surrounding them.  He has worked across the aisle to pass bipartisan legislation like the Fair Sentencing Act and the First Step Act; held hearings on harrowing conditions of confinement, including the treatment of incarcerated individuals with mental illness and the abuse of solitary confinement; and, throughout both Republican and Democratic Administrations, has pushed DOJ and BOP to improve our criminal justice system. 

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here. 

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here for TV Stations. 

-30-