Senators want answers in wake of AP’s prison investigations

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he plans to question the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons this week about an Associated Press investigation that found the agency has repeatedly promoted and continues to stand by a high-ranking official who beat Black inmates in the 1990s.

“I am very concerned about the allegations in this article and whether BOP will address abuses, prioritize safety, and improve their flawed approach to misconduct investigations,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., tweeted in the wake of AP’s story chronicling Thomas Ray Hinkle’s rise to deputy western regional director.

At the same time, Durbin and a group of Senators are demanding answers from the Justice Department about the subject of another AP investigation — the federal prison system’s handling of rampant staff misconduct, including staff-on-inmate sexual abuse and whistleblower retaliation.

Durbin on Monday joined Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, both California Democrats, in sending a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco seeking additional information and imploring the Justice Department to take immediate action to root out staff misconduct. Grassley is the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican.

The Justice Department formed a working group in July to evaluate its handling of staff sexual abuse after the warden and several other workers at a federal women’s prison in Dublin, California, were arrested for sexually abusing inmates. An AP investigation revealed that the allegations stemmed from a toxic culture of abuse and coverups at the Bay Area lockup. The working group issued a report with its findings in November.

Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters is expected to face questions on both topics when she testifies Tuesday before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The panel, chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., has been conducting its own investigation into sexual abuse of female inmates in federal prisons. Peters will meet with Durbin separately.

Prison workers and union officials, angered by the AP’s investigation into Hinkle and the agency’s response defending him, picketed Monday outside a Bureau of Prisons Western Regional Office in Stockton, California. They called on the agency to fire Hinkle and his boss, Regional Director Melissa Rios.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., echoed that sentiment. She reported a hostile encounter with Hinkle in February while on a site visit to investigate staff sexual abuse at the troubled federal women’s prison in Dublin.

“The details revealed here are deeply disturbing,” Speier said in a tweet linking to the AP article. “If only half of what is reported is true, Hinkle should be terminated immediately. I will be following up with BOP for answers.”

The AP’s story, published Friday, revealed how the Bureau of Prisons repeatedly promoted Hinkle despite numerous red flags, rewarding him again and again over a three-decade career while others who assaulted inmates lost their jobs and went to prison.

Hinkle, responding to questions from the AP, acknowledged he beat inmates but said he regrets that behavior and now speaks openly about it “to teach others how to avoid making the same mistakes.”

Peters, who started as Bureau of Prisons director in August, told the AP she believes Hinkle is a changed man and a model employee. At the same time, she said, she’s committed to working with the Justice Department and Congress to root out staff misconduct.

“Mr. Hinkle has openly acknowledged his past mistakes, gone through the employee discipline program, sought professional help and reframed his experiences as learning opportunities for others,” Peters said. “Today, I am confident he has grown into an effective supervisor for our agency.”

Federal prisons employees and union officials protesting Monday outside the regional office where Hinkle works said they were troubled by what they see as a two-tiered system of justice in the Bureau of Prisons.

“I’m very mad. You’re supposed to hold everybody accountable. Nobody is above the law,” Dublin union president Ed Canales said. “But apparently, he can change? What about officers and staff members that were wrongfully terminated on lesser charges? Or were actually terminated on the same charges? Can they be exonerated? Can they come back?”

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Associated Press reporter Haven Daley in Stockton, California contributed to this report.

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