HAZELTON — An inmate at USP Hazelton was killed in a fight Monday night, and correctional officers at the facility are again raising the issue of staffing.
According to a release from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), 48-year-old Ian Thorne was in a fight with another inmate. Richard Heldreth, president of Local 420 of the Federation of Government Employees, said the two used homemade weapons in the fight, which occurred in a commons area of the housing unit.
The release says staff immediately responded and separated the two. One prisoner was treated for minor injuries, and Thorne was pronounced dead at 6:08 p.m. by emergency medical services, the release says.
Thorne was serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder, sentenced by the District of Columbia Superior Court, according to the release. Thorne had been at USP Hazelton since Jan. 16.
The institution was placed on limited operational status after the fight and the FBI notified.
At no time was the public in danger, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Heldreth said incidents like this are another reason to be concerned for proposed cuts in correctional officer positions. About 400 of the 880 positions at Hazelton are correctional officers, he said earlier.
As previously reported, the Bureau said it is, “eliminating several thousand authorized positions that are currently vacant. These positions have been identified by the Department of Justice and Congress to be eliminated as part of an effort to ‘rightsize’ the BOP authorized staffing levels in light of the significant decrease in the inmate population we experienced over the last four years.”
Heldreth said “augmented” staff are being used. “They use like teachers, plumbers, electricians,” he said Tuesday.
While all BOP staff undergo the same basic training course, correctional officers receive additional training. They also learn about the gang leaders and inmates through day-to-day contact with them and are more familiar with equipment, Heldreth said.
As for staffing when the fight occurred, “There was the normal amount of staffing. I wouldn’t call it adequate,” Heldreth said.
There is a “culture of violence” within the facility, he said, and a “major” drug and weapon problem that is worsened by staffing. For example, had staffing been better, the weapons might have been found in a search, he said, preventing the incident.
West Virginia’s delegation in Washington has been working on the staffing, Heldreth said.
A spokesman for Congressman David McKinley, R-W.Va., said he sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “calling on him to prevent the staffing cuts,” and “has been working with the Hazelton guards to rally more members of Congress to the cause and has been in direct contact with the head of BOP to prevent the cuts and the issue where they’re using cooks and other staff to fill in the guard slots due to shortage.
“The Congressman is very engaged on the issue and is leading the fight in D.C., which was recognized by the prison guard union last month as they presented him with an award for his successful advocacy on the issue,” the spokesman said Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin said in a statement Tuesday that he, was “saddened” by the inmate’s death.
“I believe this tragedy would not have happened if staffing levels were kept at adequate levels to keep prisons and correctional officers safe,” Manchin said. “That’s why I secured a $114 million increase in salary and expenses funding for the Bureau of Prisons in the FY18 spending bill. I also made sure that the Senate report included language directing BOP to hire additional full-time staff to end augmentation and to submit quarterly reports on inmate-to-correctional officer ratio at each facility. I am working to make sure that West Virginia prisons will receive the funding they need to hire additional officers to create a safe working environment and prevent future violence for prisoners.”
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has also expressed concern in the past for cuts in the number of correctional officers and said then she would advocate for funds to ensure safe staffing levels.
The Bureau did not respond in time for this report to questions about staffing levels when the fight occurred.
The BOP has three facilities at Hazelton: A high-security prison with minimum-security satellite camp, a medium-security federal correctional institution and a secure female facility. The death occurred at the high-security prison.
According to the Bureau’s web site, 3,505 total inmates are incarcerated at the facilities. Of those, 1,370 are in the high-security prison.