How BOP Director Colette Peters plans to raise employee engagement

All week the Federal Drive has examined the Bureau of Prisons, which ranks as, "The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government," according to the annual list...

Follow the rest of Federal News Network’s series, The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government.

All week the Federal Drive has examined the Bureau of Prisons, which ranks as, “The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government,” according to the annual listing derived from employee viewpoint survey results and compiled by the Partnership for Public Service. To finish the series, Federal Drive with Tom Temin talks with Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters, who has been on the job for almost a year.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Now, you have been here a year, which is getting you to be a kind of a long tenure for a Bureau of Prisons director in recent years. But what’s your assessment of the agency in that lens of employee satisfaction, employee morale and so forth?

Colette Peters Well, it’s only been ten months, so I don’t want to get out ahead of myself. But it’s been an incredible ten months. It’s been a great welcome to the bureau. It’s been an incredible welcome from the Department of Justice. And our employees are tired. They were tired before the pandemic. This is one of the hardest law enforcement beats out there. The stressors that employees engage in are not unique to the Bureau of Prisons. It’s in corrections generally, which I’m very familiar with. And so then the pandemic happened overtime increased, augmentation increased, the economy changed and shifted our ability to hire. And views of law enforcement changed across this country during that time period. So it made recruitment even more difficult. So I think the first thing that we need to do and we’ve been focused very diligently on is staffing and getting the right people in the front door and getting us fully staffed, and then we’ll be able to have significant conversations around employee wellness and morale.

Tom Temin Because you’ve got about a 6,000 shortfall in total staff authorization from Congress. And so you’ve really got a challenge on both ends. One is to get people to come in and join the agency as a correctional officer, or someone who could serve as a correctional officer in some other capacity. And then you’ve got to keep people from leaving at the at the back end.

Colette Peters That’s correct. We were able to in the last hiring period, near the end of the year, able to hire more people than were actually leaving. But you’re hitting the nail on the head. That is the ticket. We need to keep the people that we have, keep them employed, keep them engaged, and then focus on bringing the right people in that front door.

Tom Temin Now, a parade of overseers has looked at the Bureau of Prisons. You’ve had the IG of the Justice Department repeated reports. GAO, Greta Goodwin, and both of those people have been in the series and they’ve had lots of recommendations for how to hire more people. What is your plan to get more people? What’s the selling proposition for being a correctional officer?

Colette Peters Well, first, that period of oversight, as you referred to is welcomed. And so we’ve been working diligently to build that bridge between the inspector general’s office and GAO as it relates to our plan for hiring. It’s multifaceted, but I think first we have to change how we talk about ourselves, and we’ve been doing a lot of work in that regard. So we’ve been able to create some marketing tools that actually really describe what the Bureau of Prisons does for a living, and that is we have front line boots on the ground, dedicated people who are working to change hearts and minds. I think that the country often has a misperception and misconceptions around what happens inside of our prisons and really taking the opportunity to tell the real story. When you look at the research around this younger generation that’s now coming into the workforce, they care less about salary, they care less about benefits, and they’re more mission driven. And so we couldn’t be more mission driven than we are at the Bureau of Prisons. So really focusing that in our recruitment tools in order to get the right people in these spots today.

Tom Temin Yeah, my conversations with correctional officers really does show that, don’t call them guards because they really do buy into that idea that they’re there to help people eventually get out of prison and be productive members of society. So somehow you have to sort of boomerang that or amplify that idea.

Colette Peters I think that’s absolutely right. So we’ve been doing as we pivot out of the pandemic, the executive team now is able to do kind of climb up to that 40,000 foot level and do some strategic planning. And we’ve relooked at our mission and vision and core values, and we’ve added words that matter. I mean, the base of our mission isn’t going to change at safety, security and reentry. But to use words now, like creating environments of normalcy and humanity, adding a core value called compassion. Those types of things really speak to, I think, those officers that you’ve talked to and what they believe in and what they believe they do every single day.

Tom Temin Now, there are practical issues. Some of the prisons are in rural areas where there’s not a large population of choice to choose from to be correctional officers. Some of them are in inner cities and on fancy coasts near expensive shopping, San Francisco. And therefore the cost of living is very high. Are you looking into hiring and salary flexibilities that frankly, many agencies have been pursuing the last couple of years to maybe try to calibrate the what you can offer and where you can move people across this interesting and complicated complex that you oversee.

Colette Peters That’s right. So every institution has its own hiring issues. You detailed them very well. If you’re in a rural community, often we are the biggest employer in those communities and we’ve saturated the market. There are literally no more warm bodies to interview and hire in those areas. And you’re absolutely right, We’ve located some of our institutions in areas that are now incredibly expensive. So when we are able to hire and retain those employees, some of them are driving an hour, 2 hours plus in order to live in a community that they can afford while working inside of our institutions. So we have leveraged recruitment bonuses, retention bonuses and other incentives to hope that we can get additional people in. And then, as you pointed out earlier, keep the people we have.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Colette Peters. She is director of the Bureau of Prisons, part of the Justice Department. And what about that in by 37 out by 57 rule, a former warden, Bob Hood, mentioned this to me. It’s not my own idea. Any chance that you could take someone who’s 38 but has great, say, state level experience that could still have a lot to offer the Bureau of Prisons. And by the same token, if someone’s 57, they may have a couple of good years they could get you.

Colette Peters I think when I look at the wellness data, as we studied this significantly when I was the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, and there’s a reason why people are supposed to retire at 57, and it’s because these jobs are so difficult. When you look at the data that we uncovered in Oregon, the average lifespan of a correctional officer after 20 years is 58. And so if we can get people to retire young, retire healthy after serving their country at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, I think that’s really important. That being said, we have temporarily allowed people we are able to allow people to stay longer than their 57th birthday, and we have been taking advantage of that during this crisis. It is not a good long term solution because of the stress and impact that these employees go through day in and day out.

Tom Temin Just a detail question. I mean, my knowledge and most people’s knowledge of prisons is zilch, really. All you know is what you see on lurid television shows and sensational movies. And really, I don’t know what it’s like day to day, hour by hour in the average, if there is an average, institution. But are corrections officers in constant danger of being stabbed with a Bic pen, or is it a little bit more of a copacetic day to day life?

Colette Peters So our employees come to work every day knowing that they could be assaulted. The good news is they’re not assaulted every day, but they have to be prepared for that. And so it can be more of a slower job than I think people are prepared for, the cortisol levels are prepared for. But I would suspect that if you talk to a correctional officer, they’re going to tell you they haven’t had an identical day yet. So every day is different. Every day presents different challenges. And so they have to be trained and ready to be on their toes and anticipate anything that might come their way.

Tom Temin And one of the drivers across government generally for good employee engagement is when things come out well, when the mission is being achieved. And Congress statutorily imposed on the Bureau of Prisons some time ago to work on the recidivism rate. And there’s been some issues whether the bureau has been meeting those goals. So tell us how you plan to help fulfill that law, help fulfill the idea of care, custody and goodbye, and we don’t want to see you anymore, part of the mission. And therefore, that would help maybe people buy in better.

Colette Peters I laugh because whenever I meet with individuals in custody inside our institutions and I’m listening to their success story and the programs they’ve been in and the changes they’re going to make, I say those exact words, I don’t want to see you again. And that’s that’s the goal. And that’s why we changed our mission a little bit to talk about, we want to make good neighbors. The majority of these individuals are coming back to our communities. They’re going to be our neighbors. So I don’t want us wasting time and spending time making good inmates. We want to make good neighbors. And I think the First Step Act, as you point out, and the requirements to reduce recidivism is the focus. It was a difficult time during the pandemic when we had to shut down programs, we had to shut down education. We had to focus solely on the health care of those in our care and custody. But we’re pivoting out of that now. And so as I travel across the country and tour our institutions, I’m just hearing a host of new ideas coming forward, a host of new programs being rolled out. And so in good order, we’re going to be able to look at those changes and look at those improvements. But you’re right, our goal is to produce good neighbors.

Tom Temin Now, Michael Horowitz said that he has dealt with 11 BOP directors in his 11 years as I.G. And Ms. Goodwin at GAO said she’s had six directors in six years of doing this type of work at GAO. You’ve got to be there more than 18 months or a year to be able to effectuate anything. And there’s a change in administration. I mean, as a former corrections official in the state level, I mean, should this be a term appointment or should you have five years to really start to get things changed?

Colette Peters Oh I’d have to think about that. And I think probably there are folks higher up in the federal government that would have to express their opinion on that. But what I can tell you is you’re absolutely right. Culture change takes between 3 to 7 years, according to the research. And when I was director of the Department of Corrections in Oregon, I was director for ten years and had been a sitting director for 13, having served the Oregon Youth Authority prior to my role with DOC. And I think it was that consistency in leadership that allowed us to continue pushing the same vision, the same outcomes forward. And so what I can say is you’ve got my commitment. I am committed to staying with the bureau for a significant length of time to get this work done. And I’m just honored to be in this role and look forward to fulfilling it to the best of my ability.

Tom Temin And a final question, and  you’ll probably answer this equally well, but very often coming into an organization that has had lots of changes of leadership and some challenges over the years, there’s kind of a sclerotic, if you will, that’s my word, middle management or below the top management layer that that’s where the culture really has to change. And some of these folks might be saying, well, she’ll be here another year and a half, and then somebody else will come along. Why should I put myself out? How do you drive that culture change through that layer so that it becomes apparent to the people right in the crucible, those officers, that things have really changed?

Colette Peters Yeah, we refer to those as the “we-bes.” We be here when you got here, we be here when you leave. And what I tell people is that isn’t what happened in Oregon. I was able to stay for ten years. I hope I’m able to have a significant tenure here in order to make that happen. But you are absolutely right. Real change happens, boots on the ground. It’s the wardens that we need to lean into. It’s the captains we need to lean into. It’s the lieutenants that can really, really establish and set that culture. And so one of the negative things of the pandemic was we weren’t able to get together as a bureau. So we were able to pull all of our wardens together. Just a few weeks ago in Colorado for their first in-person meeting in five years. It was their first in-person meeting, and I heard from many of them that they felt alone. They felt like they were on an island by themselves. So we’re working really hard to increase training now for our wardens, our captains and lieutenants, and making sure that we’re having these personal conversations so that they’re aligning with our vision. And I will tell you, the enthusiasm is there. They, too, are embarrassed and ashamed when they see those negative headlines and they want to do their part to ensure that the community understands what corrections is really about, not just those horrible, egregious headlines by that one bad apple.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Colette Peters. She is director of the Bureau of Prisons, part of the Justice Department. Now, there is another senior partner in this great endeavor, and that is Congress. And there is a bipartisan, I think, bicameral task force, if you will, or caucus on the Bureau of Prisons. So this is of concern to both parties. And one of the things that’s come up in there is that the bureau has not asked for enough money to do the maintenance and repair of facilities the crumbling of which is bad for both inmates and for the people that work there.

Colette Peters Yeah, I think that what I’m learning from folks here inside the bureau is that they simply didn’t ask to the degree that they should because the monies weren’t there. They had been denied before. What we really believe we need to do now is give the big ask. And so as it relates to staffing, we’re figuring out what that ask is as it relates to our facility structure. We’re actually just released an RFP to ask an outside contractor to come in with an outside a set of eyes to do an analysis of all of our structural deficits. Right now we’re using this $2 billion number saying we have a $2 billion deficit around facilities. But if you look at what’s on that $2 billion list, it’s only our prioritized list. It’s only things that fall into a life and safety category. So it’s not the smaller things that are broken. This assessment is going to do the the entire assessment, the entire ask. And when we look at that $2 billion number, even though we’ve gotten that out there again and again, what we received this last fiscal year was $80 million to solve that $2 billion  problem. And so our facilities folks are constantly reprioritizing that list on what is the most severely broken thing today that needs to be fixed. So I hope that we can get to a future state where we have a better assessment and more appropriate dollars to fix some of these structural issues.

Tom Temin I guess if you tell them that you’re going to make a particular prison solar powered, you’ll get all the money you need.

Colette Peters Well, I haven’t tried that. Maybe that’s something that we need to try. I don’t know.

Tom Temin And. Well, any other final thoughts?

Colette Peters I just I really appreciate some of your comments. This notion that the world doesn’t understand what we do in corrections and they based it on shows like Shawshank Redemption or Orange is the New Black. We really are trying to do something special here and unique at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And we want to be the guiding light in corrections. We want to create an environment that is humane and normal for those in our care and custody, which also will mean a better work environment for our employees. These folks that have given their lives and career and dedicated that life to serving their country. So we we hope to have improved and better outcomes, and I think we’re marching in the right direction.


Follow the rest of Federal News Network’s series, The Worst Place to Work in the Federal Government.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories