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New federal prisons chief vows to fix troubles, regain trust

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New federal prisons chief vows to fix troubles, regain trust

WASHINGTON (AP) — The new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons vowed Thursday that “the buck stops with me” when it comes to fixing the crisis-plagued agency, ticking off a list of top priorities, from solving a staffing crisis to ending widespread misconduct.

Colette Peters’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee — the first time she’s appeared before Congress — was a stark departure from the combative nature of her predecessor, who drew bipartisan rebukes for foisting blame on others and refusing to accept responsibility for the agency’s problems.

Peters, who started in August, said the troubles she inherited have eroded trust in the agency among staff, inmates and the public. She cautioned that it’ll take time to turn around the Justice Department’s largest component, with 122 facilities, 159,000 inmates and a budget of more than $8 billion — but that it must be done.

“These individuals in our care have the right to feel safe when they are incarcerated with us,” Peters told The Associated Press after testifying. “So we’re going to do everything we can to ensure their safety.”

The Bureau of Prisons has been under increasing scrutiny from Congress amid myriad crises, many of them exposed by AP reporting, including rampant sexual abuse of inmates by staff and other staff criminal conduct, chronic understaffing hampering emergency responses, escapes and deaths.

Peters, previously the director of Oregon’s state prison system, was brought in to run the Bureau of Prisons as a reform-minded outsider. Unlike past directors who worked their way up the ranks, she’d never been a federal prison employee before taking the top job.

Peters said she wants people to come out of prison better than they went in, telling senators, “Our job is to make good neighbors, not good inmates.”

Currently, though, the federal prison system isn’t always putting former inmates in a position to succeed, advocates say. Because of staffing shortages, inmates aren’t always able to take classes and access other programming that could help them on the outside. Some inmates eligible for early release under the First Step Act — a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul measure signed during the Trump administration — have been left to languish while paperwork piles up for overworked, understaffed case managers, advocates say.

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In the weeks since Peters took charge of the Bureau of Prisons, she has made changes to the system’s organizational chart that she said will improve communications between its headquarters and its 122 facilities. Other changes include hiring of 40 additional internal affairs staff, which she said will improve handling and address a backlog of misconduct investigations.

Peters said the agency has been conducting what it terms cultural assessments of its facilities, starting with its women’s prisons, like the one in Dublin, California, where a former warden and four workers were charged with sexually abusing employees. Based on those findings, the agency is making sure workers are trained in gender responsiveness and trauma-informed care, said Peters, who visited the Dublin prison this month.

She also promised to visit another problem prison: the Atlanta federal penitentiary that has been overrun with misconduct and corruption and was the subject of a July hearing of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

At the same time, Peters must figure out a way to solve the agency’s severe staffing shortage and shore up crumbling infrastructure.

With many vacant positions, prisons have been using cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates, raising questions about whether the agency is keeping prisoners and staff safe and keeping up with programming and classes, as required by law.

Peters said the makeshift staffing practice, known as augmentation, should only be used in true staffing emergencies, not as a permanent fix for dwindling guard ranks. Peters, expressing concern for employee wellness, said the agency’s increased reliance on overtime and augmentation during the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated “wear and tear” on prison workers.

But augmentation might not be going away any time soon, with attrition only accelerating the agency’s staffing decline and hiring efforts — including career fairs, increased marketing and new recruitment strategies honed by an outside consultant — unable to keep up.

About 3,000 workers retired from the Bureau of Prisons last year and another 3,000 are expected to head for the door this year, Shane Fausey, the president of the federal correctional workers union, told the Judiciary Committee.

Peters also faces other challenges, including modernizing facilities that are rotting with mold or literally falling apart. Others are in dire need of HVAC upgrades and other structural repairs. All told, the agency is facing a $2 billion infrastructure deficit, Peters said.

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Responding to an array of questions about the AP’s reporting on rampant sexual abuse at a women’s prison in California, Peters vowed to continue to prioritize allegations of staff misconduct and encouraged those who see wrongdoing to bring it forward. The Justice Department is also pushing for additional prosecutions and harsher penalties for prison workers who sexually abuse inmates.

Peters said the agency must “create an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward” as whistleblowers — where inmates are free to speak up without retaliation and employees understand that they have an obligation to report wrongdoing.

Peters agreed without hesitation when Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., asked if “the buck will stop with you” and if she will bear “personal and ultimate responsibility for what happens” at the agency.

Peters reiterated that afterward, telling the AP: “The buck stops with me. It’s important that I understand what’s happening inside our organization.”

The AP reported in February that whistleblower employees said they were being bulled by high-ranking prison officials, while inmates alleging abuse were being sent to solitary confinement or transferred to other prisons to silence them.

A bill introduced Wednesday would require the Justice Department to hire an ombudsman to field and investigate such complaints. The measure has support from a broad coalition of prison stakeholders, including Fausey’s union.

“A safe work place is a safe place for offenders to live. We have a common goal. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Prisons is a very large bureaucracy. If you do not maintain an independent avenue for oversight, a bureaucracy will abuse itself and I think the bureau has gotten to that point where they can’t help themselves,” Fausey said.

Durbin, whose been a sharp critic of the Bureau of Prisons and its former director, Michael Carvajal, came away impressed with Peters, telling her: “A-plus. You did very well.”

Durbin said in an interview with the AP that Peters “has the right attitude about bringing a new generation of leadership to the Bureau of Prisons.”

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“She has her hands full,” Durbin said. “I want to be supportive of her in the administration. But I also want to hold them accountable.”

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On Twitter, follow Michael Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak and Michael Balsamo at twitter.com/MikeBalsamo1 and send confidential tips by visiting https://www.ap.org/tips/

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

The patience of Memorial Day weekend travelers was tested Thursday by widespread delays across the country, but there were relatively few canceled flights, raising hopes that airlines can handle bigger crowds expected Friday.

By early evening on the East Coast, more than 6,000 flights had been delayed Thursday, with the biggest backups at the three major airports in the New York City area and Dallas-Fort Worth International.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

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Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

The Transportation Security Administration predicted that Friday will be the busiest day for air travel over the holiday weekend, with nearly 3 million people expected to pass through airport checkpoints. It could rival the record of 2.9 million, set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“Airports are going to be more packed than we have seen in 20 years,” said Aixa Diaz, a spokesperson for AAA.

When they aren’t waiting out flight delays, travelers are reporting sticker shock at the prices.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Larisa Latimer of New Lenox, Illinois, said her airfare was reasonable but other expenses for a getaway to New Orleans were not.

 

 

 

 

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Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

“I just have to make the accommodation,” she said. “The rental car is up … this year, the hotel accommodations were very unusually expensive.”

Kathy Larko of Fort Meyers, Florida, used frequent-flyer miles — and some flexible scheduling — to pay for her trip to Chicago.

“I’m really conscious of looking at the cost of the entire trip. We’re staying a little farther out than we normally would” to get a lower hotel rate, she said. “We’re also flying back a day later, because we could get cheaper miles.”

More travelers will be on the road. AAA estimates that 43.8 million people will venture at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home between Thursday and Monday, with 38 million of them taking vehicles.

 
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Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Airport unions are using the holiday weekend to highlight their demands.

About 100 workers who clean airplane cabins and drive trash trucks at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, started a 24-hour strike Thursday, demanding better pay and healthcare, according to the Service Employees International Union. About 15% of flights were delayed, but it was unclear whether the strike played any role.

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A planned strike at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was averted, however. Teamsters Local 553, which represents about 300 workers who refuel passenger and cargo jets at JFK, said that it reached a settlement with Allied Aviation Services and called off a walkout planned for Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

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“We are happy an agreement has been reached, a need for a strike averted, and we are hopeful that the deal will be ratified by our members,” said Demos Demopoulos, the secretary-treasurer of the local.

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Associated Press video journalist Melissa Perez Winder in Chicago and Associated Press radio reporter Shelley Adler in Washington contributed to this report.

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas’ health department has appointed an outspoken anti-abortion OB-GYN to a committee that reviews pregnancy-related deaths as doctors have been warning that the state’s restrictive abortion ban puts women’s lives at risk.

Dr. Ingrid Skop was among the new appointees to the Texas Maternal Morality and Morbidity Review Committee announced last week by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Her term starts June 1.

The committee, which compiles data on pregnancy-related deaths, makes recommendations to the Legislature on best practices and policy changes and is expected to assess the impact of abortion laws on maternal mortality.

Skop, who has worked as an OB-GYN for over three decades, is vice president and director of medical affairs for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion research group. Skop will be the committee’s rural representative.

Skop, who has worked in San Antonio for most of her career, told the Houston Chronicle that she has “often cared for women traveling long distances from rural Texas maternity deserts, including women suffering complications from abortions.”

Texas has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the U.S., and doctors have sought clarity on the state’s medical exemption, which allows an abortion to save a woman’s life or prevent the impairment of a major bodily function. Doctors have said the exemption is too vague, making it difficult to offer life-saving care for fear of repercussions. A doctor convicted of providing an illegal abortion in Texas can face up to 99 years in prison and a $100,000 fine and lose their medical license.

Skop has said medical associations are not giving doctors the proper guidance on the matter. She has also shared more controversial views, saying during a congressional hearing in 2021 that rape or incest victims as young as 9 or 10 could carry pregnancies to term.

Texas’ abortion ban has no exemption for cases of rape or incest.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which says abortion is “inherently tied to maternal health,” said in a statement that members of the Texas committee should be “unbiased, free of conflicts of interest and focused on the appropriate standards of care.” The organization noted that bias against abortion has already led to “compromised” analyses, citing a research articles co-authored by Skop and others affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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Earlier this year a medical journal retracted studies supported by the Charlotte Lozier Institute claiming to show harms of the abortion pill mifepristone, citing conflicts of interests by the authors and flaws in their research. Two of the studies were cited in a pivotal Texas court ruling that has threatened access to the drug.

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

A Michigan dairy worker has been diagnosed with bird flu — the second human case associated with an outbreak in U.S. dairy cows.

The male worker had been in contact with cows at a farm with infected animals. He experienced mild eye symptoms and has recovered, U.S. and Michigan health officials said in announcing the case Wednesday.

A nasal swab from the person tested negative for the virus, but an eye swab tested Tuesday was positive for bird flu, “indicating an eye infection,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said.

The worker developed a “gritty feeling” in his eye earlier this month but it was a “very mild case,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive. He was not treated with oseltamivir, a medication advised for treating bird flu, she said.

The risk to the public remains low, but farmworkers exposed to infected animals are at higher risk, health officials said. They said those workers should be offered protective equipment, especially for their eyes.

Health officials say they do not know if the Michigan farmworker was wearing protective eyewear, but an investigation is continuing.

In late March, a farmworker in Texas was diagnosed in what officials called the first known instance globally of a person catching this version of bird flu from a mammal. That patient reported only eye inflammation and recovered.

Since 2020, a bird flu virus has been spreading among more animal species — including dogs, cats, skunks, bears and even seals and porpoises — in scores of countries.

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The detection in U.S. livestock earlier this year was an unexpected twist that sparked questions about food safety and whether it would start spreading among humans.

That hasn’t happened, although there’s been a steady increase of reported infections in cows. As of Wednesday, the virus had been confirmed in 51 dairy herds in nine states, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fifteen of the herds were in Michigan.

The CDC’s Dr. Nirav Shah said the case was “not unexpected” and it’s possible more infections could be diagnosed in people who work around infected cows.

U.S. officials said they had tested 40 people since the first cow cases were discovered in late March. Michigan has tested 35 of them, Bagdasarian told The Associated Press in an interview.

Shah praised Michigan officials for actively monitoring farmworkers. He said health officials there have been sending daily text messages to workers exposed to infected cows asking about possible symptoms, and that the effort helped officials catch this infection. He said no other workers had reported symptoms.

That’s encouraging news, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who has studied bird flu for decades. There’s no sign to date that the virus is causing flu-like illness or that it is spreading among people.

“If we had four or five people seriously ill with respiratory illness, we would be picking that up,” he said.

The virus has been found in high levels in the raw milk of infected cows, but government officials say pasteurized products sold in grocery stores are safe because heat treatment has been confirmed to kill the virus.

The new case marks the third time a person in the United States has been diagnosed with what’s known as Type A H5N1 virus. In 2022, a prison inmate in a work program picked it up while killing infected birds at a poultry farm in Montrose County, Colorado. His only symptom was fatigue, and he recovered. That predated the virus’s appearance in cows.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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