MORGANTOWN — Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said the prison bill floating around the lame duck session of Congress needs to focus on addressing staffing issues at federal prisons — particularly those like USP Hazelton.
Three inmates have been killed in the Preston County-based federal facility this year — most recently, infamous gangster James “Whitey” Bulger met his demise just one day after being transferred from a different facility outside West Virginia.
“We know that our prison system is overcrowded,” McKinley said on MetroNews “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval. “They are, in some facilities, designed for 1,400 inmates, they have 4,000 inmates. We are triple- and quadruple-bunking in cells that are only meant to be having one person.”
McKinley said not every federal prison faces this issue. In Hazelton, union leader Richard Heldreth said previously the deaths are placing a spotlight on understaffing. In September, following the second death of the year at Hazelton, Heldreth told The Dominion Post staffing positions were lowered from 880 to 796, only 735 of which were filled.
“If we’re going to pass something on judicial reform, I want to make sure that we get the replacement guards that are necessary,” McKinley said. “Because we have 6,000 positions open across the country. We can’t have that.”
Positions that are filled are often done with the help of augmentation, the practice of using support staff like administrative assistants in other roles — like as correctional officers.
“They don’t have a problem using secretaries, clerks and technicians to act in guard capacity when called upon,” McKinley said. “I find that as an insult because guards are trained very specifically how to protect themselves if they get into a situation. I don’t think a secretary is ever going to be trained properly for that — or cooks, they are not trained to do that.”
McKinley told MetroNews he has been meeting with staff at Hazelton to try to assess the situation before he returns to Washington.
“We have more money coming into this United States government than we’ve ever had before,” he said. “It’s a matter of priorities. Let’s look at those priorities and get people into the guard’s position so it is commensurate with other facilities around the country.
“Unfortunately, what we’ve found out so far at Hazelton, it is not meeting the standards that other prisons are having across the country.”