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Justice Department Taps Oregon Official to Run Troubled Bureau of Prisons

WASHINGTON — Colette S. Peters, the longtime director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, has been tapped to lead the chronically mismanaged and understaffed federal Bureau of Prisons, according to two people familiar with the decision.

The Justice Department, which oversees the bureau, is expected to announce her appointment this week, perhaps as early as Tuesday. The bureau, a sprawling network of 122 facilities with an annual budget of around $10 billion, houses about 158,000 inmates.

The appointment comes after a long search to replace the current director, Michael Carvajal, who announced his intention to retire in January, under pressure from Senate Democrats who questioned his management.

Ms. Peters, who began her career as an administrator in Oregon’s juvenile justice system, rose to national prominence after instituting changes in the state’s 14-facility system to improve the health and treatment of its 15,000 inmates.

She was considered the favored candidate for a job seen as one of the Justice Department’s most demanding and thankless assignments.

The federal prisons bureau has long been plagued by health and safety problems, physical and sexual abuse, corruption and turnover in the top management ranks. Staffing issues, exacerbated by the pandemic, have resulted in a huge shortage of prison guards and health personnel, according to an investigation by The Associated Press last year, which uncovered a wide array of other shortcomings.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who serves as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had been especially critical of Mr. Carvajal, accusing him of failing to enforce provisions of a bipartisan prison reform bill passed during the Trump administration.

He called for Mr. Carvajal’s ouster in November, describing the bureau as rife with abuse and corruption. The Biden administration, he added, should act urgently to fix the system by starting with “new leadership” from outside the federal bureaucracy.

Mr. Carvajal, a longtime department official who began his career in 1992 as a guard in Texas, was tapped to run the bureau in February 2020 by Attorney General William P. Barr. He took over the agency just as the coronavirus began to sweep through the nation’s prisons. As hundreds of thousands of inmates and correctional officers became infected, Mr. Carvajal’s policies drew criticism from lawmakers in both parties.

But the system was in crisis long before his tenure.

In 2019, the House Subcommittee on National Security found that misconduct in the federal prison system was widespread, tolerated and routinely covered up or ignored, including among senior officials. The report also found that a permissive environment often made lower-ranking employees targets of abuse — including sexual assault and harassment — by prisoners and staff members.

Inmates exploited the lax supervision, the report found, because “if they know that an employee will get little support from management if harassed, that employee becomes a target.”

That report followed a 2018 investigation by The New York Times that documented the harsh treatment endured by female employees, and a pattern of retaliation, professional sabotage and firings faced by female whistle-blowers.

Under the Trump administration, the bureau was the subject of turf battles and ideological disagreements, even as the White House negotiated the bipartisan criminal justice legislation known as the First Step Act. The measure was devised to reduce the size of the federal prison system and to provide lower-level offenders with greater access to alternatives to incarceration.

In 2018, Mark S. Inch, a retired Army major general tapped to run the bureau, quietly resigned after finding himself in the crossfire between Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who championed the reform legislation inside the White House, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who favored a hard-line approach.

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