By MICHAEL R. SISAK and MICHAEL BALSAMO
The prison staff didn’t know much about the new acting warden. Then, they say, he made a bizarre and startling confession: Years ago, he beat inmates — and got away with it.
Thomas Ray Hinkle, a high-ranking federal Bureau of Prisons official, was sent to restore order and trust at a women’s prison wracked by a deplorable scandal. Instead, workers say, he left the federal lockup in Dublin, California, even more broken.
Staff saw Hinkle as a bully and regarded his presence there — just after allegations that the previous warden and other employees sexually assaulted inmates — as hypocrisy from an agency that was publicly pledging to end its abusive, corrupt culture.
So at a staff meeting in March, they confronted the then-director of the Bureau of Prisons and asked: Why, instead of firing Hinkle years ago, was the agency keen to keep promoting him?
“That’s something we’ve got to look into,” Michael Carvajal responded, according to people in the room.
Three months later, the Bureau of Prisons promoted Hinkle again, putting him in charge of 20 federal prisons and 21,000 inmates from Utah to Hawaii as acting western regional director. Among them: Dublin.
An Associated Press investigation has found that the Bureau of Prisons has 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.
The agency’s new leader defends Hinkle, saying he’s a changed man and a model employee — standing by him even as she promises to work with the Justice Department and Congress to root out staff misconduct. And Hinkle, responding to questions from the AP, acknowledged that he assaulted inmates in the 1990s but said he regrets that behavior and now speaks openly about it “to teach others how to avoid making the same mistakes.”
Among the AP’s findings:
— At least three inmates, all Black, have accused Hinkle of beating them while he was a correctional officer at a Florence, Colorado federal penitentiary in 1995 and 1996. The allegations were documented in court documents and formal complaints to prison officials. In recent years, colleagues say, Hinkle has talked about beating inmates while a member of a violent, racist gang of guards called “The Cowboys.”
— One inmate said he felt terrified as Hinkle and another guard dragged him up a stairway and slammed him into walls. Another said Hinkle was among guards who threw him to a concrete floor, spat on him and used racist language toward him. A third said Hinkle slapped him and held him down while another guard sexually assaulted him.
— The Bureau of Prisons and Justice Department knew about allegations against Hinkle in 1996 but promoted him anyway. The agency promoted Hinkle least nine times after the alleged beatings, culminating in June with his promotion to acting regional director.
— At least 11 guards connected to “The Cowboys” were charged with federal crimes, but not Hinkle. Three were convicted and imprisoned. Four were acquitted; four pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate. Hinkle was promoted twice before the criminal investigation was over.
— In 2007, while a lieutenant at a Houston federal jail, Hinkle was arrested for public intoxication at a music festival after police say he got drunk, flashed his Bureau of Prisons ID card and refused orders to leave. After the case was dropped, the agency promoted Hinkle.
— Hinkle has also come under fire as a senior agency leader. The Justice Department rebuked him in March after he was accused of attempting to silence a whistleblower, and the Bureau of Prisons said it was taking corrective action after he impeded a member of Congress’ investigation and sent all-staff emails criticizing her and the agency. Three months later, he was promoted to acting regional director.
— The Bureau of Prisons, already under intense scrutiny from Congress for myriad crises and dysfunction, did not publicize Hinkle’s promotion. Instead, the agency left his predecessor’s name and bio on its website and refused requests for basic information about him.
The AP has spent months investigating Hinkle, obtaining more than 1,600 pages of court records and agency reports from the National Archives and Records Administration, reviewing thousands of pages of documents from related criminal cases and appeals, and interviewing dozens of people. Many spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation or because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Together, they show that while the Bureau of Prisons has vowed to change its toxic culture in the wake of Dublin and other scandals — a promise recently reiterated by the agency’s new director, Colette Peters — it has continued to elevate a man involved in one of the darkest, most abusive periods in its history.
The extent of Hinkle’s alleged misconduct and his subsequent rise to the upper ranks of the Bureau of Prisons has never been revealed. The AP’s findings raise serious questions about the agency’s standards, its selection and vetting of candidates for top-tier positions, and its explicit commitment to rooting out abuse.
“As a minimum, the music festival incident, handling of the whistleblower, and the congressional investigation exhibit his extremely poor judgment,” said Allan Turner, a former federal prison warden who reviewed the AP’s findings.
This story is part of an ongoing AP investigation that has uncovered deep, previously unreported flaws within the Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest law enforcement agency with more than 30,000 employees, 158,000 inmates and an annual budget of about $8 billion.
In response to detailed questions from the AP, Hinkle admitted that he assaulted inmates in the 1990s, but that he regrets his behavior and now speaks openly about it “to teach others how to avoid making the same mistakes.” He said he cooperated fully with investigators at the time and was disciplined for his actions, though he did not specify how.
“With the support of my friends, family, and colleagues, and through professional help, I have made the most of my opportunity for a second chance to serve the Bureau of Prisons honorably over the past 12 years,” Hinkle told the AP.
“I cannot speak to why some are dredging up history from so many years ago, but my distant past does not reflect who I am today,” Hinkle added. He said “vehemently and categorically” denied using racial slurs, targeting whistleblowers and any recent allegations of misconduct.
The Bureau of Prisons responded to detailed questions about Hinkle with a statement from Peters defending him and the agency’s decisions to promote him.
“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.”
At the same time, Peters said she remains committed to working within the agency and the Justice Department and with Congress “to root out staff misconduct and other concerns.”
Under Justice Department policy, Hinkle must retire next May when he turns 57. That, said Hinkle, is precisely what he plans to do.