AP Investigation: Prison boss beat inmates, climbed ranks
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.
`WE ARE ALL HUMAN’
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 should have been a red flag for any promotion board and is certainly not the appropriate level of judgment expected of someone serving in a leadership role in a correctional institution or in a region,” said Turner, a research professor emeritus in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
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 conceded that he beat inmates as a correctional officer but said he has made significant changes to his life since then, including seeking professional treatment and quitting alcohol. He said he was disciplined — a two-week suspension for failing to report abuse of an inmate — and that he cooperated fully with investigators.
“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 twelve years,” Hinkle said.
“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 “vehemently and categorically” denied using racial slurs, targeting whistleblowers and any recent allegations of misconduct.
“My story I share with my fellow staff has more to do with hope and change after getting help and not self-medicating with alcohol,” Hinkle said. “We are all human and make mistakes. There is no shame in admitting our problems and seeking help.”
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.”
The AP also filed requests with the Bureau of Prisons under the Freedom of Information Act for background information on Hinkle, including his job history, work assignments and official photograph. The agency claimed it had “no public records responsive” to AP’s request.
The agency also denied a request for Hinkle’s disciplinary records, saying that “even to acknowledge the existence of such records … would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
‘ONE OF THE ORIGINAL COWBOYS’
Hinkle showed no privacy concerns when he stood up in front of his boss, wardens and union brass and told them what he had done.
It was 2020. The new regional director, Melissa Rios, was holding court at regional headquarters in Stockton, California. Suddenly here was Hinkle, her deputy, talking at length about how he brutalized inmates long ago.
“I am one of the original Cowboys from Florence,” Hinkle said, according to people who were there. He also said, according to them: “We were abusing inmates” and “we were assaulting them.”
Around the room, people looked at each other, puzzled. Was it intended as a cautionary tale? Or was he bragging?
Fresh from the Marine Corps, Hinkle was among the first wave of correctional officers hired to staff the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. The prison, opened in 1993, was part of a cluster built in the high desert 110 miles (175 kilometers) south of Denver to relieve overcrowding elsewhere. Next door, an even higher-security prison was springing up: the super-max “Alcatraz of the Rockies” for terrorists, mob bosses, drug lords and other dangerous felons.
The federal inmate population had tripled since 1980, fueled by a surge in violent crime and mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Within the Florence penitentiary’s freshly poured walls, “The Cowboys” were taking over.
One guard told a grand jury that the prison’s captain had given a “green light” for “The Cowboys” to attack inmates. In particular, “The Cowboys” ran roughshod over the special housing unit or SHU (pronounced “shoe”) — a prison within the prison for inmates with disciplinary problems.
They’d walk around wearing “Cowboys” baseball caps and leave a “Cowboys” medallion as a calling card. They’d throw a ball painted with “Cowboy Love” into a cell, wait until an inmate picked it up and then rush in and jump him.
They’d meet during off hours to talk about beatings. They’d stress secrecy, bribe inmates with cigarettes to stay quiet, and repeat slogans like “you lie ’till you die.”
In all, prosecutors said, “The Cowboys” beat more than two dozen prisoners — many of them Black — in less than three years.
BEATINGS, NO CONSEQUENCES
Hinkle was accused of assaulting at least three inmates. The allegations were detailed in court actions and formal complaints to agency officials. Two said Hinkle beat them as he and other guards brought them to the penitentiary’s special housing unit on Oct. 29, 1995, after a violent uprising at Florence’s neighboring medium-security prison.
Both men said they were in full restraints — handcuffs, chains, and shackles — and unable to protect themselves from guards wearing helmets, elbow pads and knee pads.
Marion Bryant Jr. alleged in a lawsuit, later settled by the Bureau of Prisons for $7,500, that Hinkle and other guards dragged him up a flight of stairs and slammed him into walls in a dark hallway. He said guards held his arms, tripped him, kicked his groin and taunted him with racial slurs.
“We’ll kill you if you f--- with staff,” they said, according to Bryant.
Bryant said Hinkle and another officer then carried him down some stairs, dragged him down a hall and threw him on a cell floor, where Hinkle removed his restraints and his clothing.
“I’m terrified. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” Bryant testified in a 2000 deposition.
Bryant, a former University of Utah linebacker, said in court documents that he sustained bruised ribs, a busted lip and injuries to his left shoulder but wasn’t seen by prison medical staff for more than a week.
Norman McCrary accused Hinkle and three other guards of slamming him to a concrete floor, spitting on him, and calling him a “f------ n---—.”
Bryant and McCrary, both in for drug offenses, were among two dozen inmates taken to the SHU in the wake of the uprising.
Bryant was accused of breaking off a table leg in the melee and swinging it at a prison worker “in a threatening manner.” He denied the allegation but later pleaded guilty to assaulting a correctional officer, adding two years to his sentence. Bryant said he was held in the special housing unit for six months after his alleged beating.
Hinkle was accused by a colleague in court proceedings of assaulting a third inmate, Reginald McCoy, around the same time. McCoy, 52, told the AP that Hinkle was among four guards who slapped him and held him down while a guard fondled his genitals.
McCoy, who also goes by the name Kojovi Muhammad and is serving a life sentence for cocaine distribution, said another guard punched him in the jaw, causing him to spit up blood and knocking his teeth out of place. He pretended to be unconscious until they left.
One guard told a grand jury investigating “The Cowboys” in 2000 that McCoy was sent to the SHU for allegedly following a female employee around, and that once he was in a holding cell, Hinkle and other guards assaulted him.
Prosecutors listed McCoy’s assault among dozens of acts in the indictment of seven members of the “The Cowboys.” They did not mention Hinkle, who wasn’t charged.
Bureau of Prisons policy bars workers from using “brutality, physical violence, or intimidation toward inmates, or use any force beyond what is reasonably necessary to subdue an inmate,” with punishment ranging from reprimand to firing.
Bryant tried to fight back through the legal system. Within weeks of his alleged beating, he filed a staff assault complaint through the prison’s administrative remedy process and later added a tort claim seeking $2 million. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division closed its investigation in February 1997, saying there was “insufficient medical evidence” and “insufficient eyewitness corroboration.”
The Bureau of Prisons also denied Bryant’s tort claim, writing that its investigation “does not reveal evidence to show that you suffered any actual personal injury as a result of negligence, omission, wrongful acts, or improper conduct on the part of Bureau of Prisons staff.”
Bryant filed a prisoner’s civil rights lawsuit against Hinkle and other officers in April 1997. The Bureau of Prisons settled with Bryant in 2003, the same year he was released from prison, but fought until after his death in 2015 to keep the terms secret.
A SECOND CHANCE AND MORE TROUBLE
Within a year of the Justice Department closing its investigation into Bryant and McCrary’s allegations, the Bureau of Prisons promoted Hinkle out of Florence.
By February 1998, he was a senior officer specialist at a low-security prison at the federal prison complex in Beaumont, Texas, northeast of Houston. The position, which was to be awarded through a competitive selection process, put Hinkle one rung below management.
Bryant had just filed his lawsuit, and the FBI investigation into “The Cowboys” was ongoing. Two years later, though, the Bureau of Prisons promoted Hinkle into management as a lieutenant at its Houston jail.
But in October 2007, Hinkle was arrested for public intoxication after authorities say he refused to leave an all-day music festival when security ejected him for not having a ticket.
“Some punk inside made me f------ leave,” Hinkle told a sheriff’s deputy, according to an arrest report obtained by the AP through an open records request from the Montgomery County, Texas sheriff’s office.
It was around 9 p.m. at the annual Buzzfest festival, featuring The Smashing Pumpkins and other alt-rock favorites, in the Houston suburb of The Woodlands. Hinkle, then 41, flashed his Bureau of Prisons ID and told the sheriff’s deputy that “he was an officer just like” him.
In that moment, though, the deputy saw Hinkle — his breath smelling of booze, defying orders to leave — as a “danger to himself and others” and told him he was under arrest for public intoxication. As the sheriff’s deputy turned him around to handcuff him, Hinkle stiffened his body and resisted, according to the arrest report. Several other officers had to help.
After 16 months, prosecutors dropped the case just before trial, sparing Hinkle the maximum penalty — a $500 fine — and, more importantly, the prospect of a criminal record.
Hinkle’s lawyer in the case, Earl Musick, said Hinkle had misplaced his ticket after entering. Musick said he found several witnesses who would’ve testified that Hinkle wasn’t intoxicated. Prosecutors decided to withdraw the case after they had trouble finding witnesses to support the allegations, Musick said.
“He was completely innocent of that,” Musick said. “They got pissed off at him for some reason and hung that charge on him.”
Hinkle stayed in Houston, where he’d bought a house and remarried, until 2012 — nearly 12 years after he’d arrived. It was his longest gap between promotions.
Then, the Bureau of Prisons promoted him again and again in rapid succession.
— In 2013, Hinkle was made deputy captain of the federal prison complex in Forrest City, Arkansas. A year later, he was the captain of the federal prison complex in Beaumont, Texas.
— In 2016, the agency promoted Hinkle to assistant administrator of the correctional programs division at its Washington, D.C. headquarters, giving him a hand in setting policies and overseeing operations at all 122 federal prison facilities.
— In 2018, the Bureau of Prisons sent Hinkle to help run its newest and one of its most dangerous facilities, making him associate warden — second-in-command — at the federal penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois. Among his duties: Overseeing staff sexual abuse training and compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Then, in January 2020, the agency sent Hinkle west as deputy regional director.
‘MESS UP, MOVE UP’?
Hinkle’s rise is a stark example of what Bureau of Prisons employees call the agency’s “mess up, move up” policy — its tendency to promote and transfer troubled workers instead of firing them.
Hinkle had never worked in the western region before and had never been a warden, often a prerequisite for a top regional post. And yet there he was, appointed to help run one-fifth of the nation’s federal lockups and given a $40,000 raise. This year, Hinkle is on pace to make $176,300, according to government data.
Employees say Hinkle has been a foul-mouthed bully who leads through fear and intimidation. Inmates allege in court filings that, on his watch, they’ve been subjected to “Cowboys”-style violence from correctional officer “goon squads” roughing them up after a hunger strike at an Oregon federal prison.
Hinkle has been accused of targeting employee whistleblowers; questioning the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic as it raged in federal prisons; defending the ex-Dublin warden charged with sexually abusing inmates; and, in an ad hoc security policy, female workers say he ordered them to take off their bras when they arrived for work.
“I’ve never heard one positive thing about the guy,” said Aaron McGlothin, president of the union at the federal prison in Mendota, California. “Everybody says the same thing,” he says — that Hinkle is “narcissistic” and “arrogant.”
McGlothin said Hinkle sent a lieutenant to videotape union members protesting understaffing last year outside the Mendota prison. Union leaders at another federal prison, in Herlong, California, said Hinkle threatened to discipline them for insubordination after they spoke up about staffing shortages.
Union representatives have complained repeatedly to the Bureau of Prisons and Justice Department about Hinkle. They’ve written to Attorney General Merrick Garland and his top deputy, Lisa Monaco, pleading for his removal, and they’ve sought help from members of Congress.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., had her own hostile encounter with Hinkle when she visited Dublin in February. Her assessment: “He’s a thug.”
Speier said Hinkle was dismissive of Dublin’s sexual-abuse crisis — worrying more about the prison’s reputation than the inmates — and tried to block her from speaking one-on-one with women who reported abuse.
“The lens through which he looked at the issue wasn’t that this was some horrible cultural rot — it was that it was an embarrassment,” Speier said. “I think he’s risen through the ranks by being part of the team… He came off as arrogant. He just really didn’t get it.”
The Bureau of Prisons made Hinkle acting warden at Dublin in January after former warden Ray Garcia and several other workers were arrested for sexually abusing inmates. Garcia was convicted Thursday after a week-long trial.
Hinkle told Dublin staff that he was there to help the prison “regain its reputation,” but employees say his two months in charge left the facility even more tattered. They say Hinkle attempted to silence an employee whistleblower and even threatened to close the prison if workers kept speaking up about misconduct.
Employees say Hinkle met alone with a female worker who filed a harassment complaint against a prison manager, a violation of established protocols that gave the appearance he was trying to keep her quiet. Afterward, the woman said she felt blindsided and was reluctant to proceed.
The episode led to rare public condemnation from the Justice Department, which said in a March statement: “These allegations, if true, are abhorrent.”
Employees say Hinkle also showed little sense of the crisis that brought him to Dublin, wrongly claiming to workers that what Garcia was accused of was consensual sex — even though the law, which he oversaw training on at Thomson, is clear that no such thing exists between inmates and prison workers.
Hinkle left Dublin at the end of February, returning to his deputy regional director duties while a new, permanent warden took over. A week later, Carvajal was at the prison, pledging to look into employees’ concerns about how Hinkle kept getting promoted instead of fired.
Nevertheless, on June 10, Carvajal sent a memo to Bureau of Prisons staff announcing that he was promoting Hinkle to acting western regional director indefinitely. Rios, the regional director, was on leave for a family emergency and not expected back, but the agency said she returned in late September, bumping Hinkle back to deputy regional director.
And that’s where he remains, at least for now. Under Justice Department policy, Hinkle must retire next May when he turns 57. That, said Hinkle, is precisely what he plans to do.