Hazelton prison workers picket to raise awareness of understaffing

BRUCETON MILLS — Workers from USP Hazelton and supporters stood at the  Bruceton Mills exit of Interstate 68 Friday, holding signs to raise public awareness of the dangers posed by not adequately staffing federal prisons.

Local 420 of the American Federation of Government Employees represents workers at the prisons at Hazelton, in northern Preston County. So far this year, three prisoners have been murdered in the penitentiary  by other inmates.

Workers say the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is understaffed nationwide and that endangers not only them, but inmates and possibly the public.

“We’re here to try and raise awareness about other staffing and some of the policies, such as augmentation, that are creating a dangerous environment,” said Richard Heldreth, president of Local 420. “We think that the staff we have do a wonderful job. They’re very well trained, very professional. We just need more of them.”

Congressman David McKinley, R-W.Va.,  Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., have lobbied to have more correctional staff hired. And the recent murder of infamous gangster Whitey Bulger, while an inmate at Hazelton, has raised awareness, Heldreth said.

“I hate for terrible things to have to happen for it to be more well-known, but I think the conversation is being had now,” Heldreth said.

The staff at Hazelton was dropped from 880 to 796  last year, and only about 720 of the positions are filled, Heldreth said. More than 30 vacancies exist for correctional officers.

The White House enacted a hiring freeze in early 2017 that was lifted,  but the BOP kept the freeze in place throughout the year, Heldreth said. When 2018 began, the agency decided that, “since we have all these vacant positions, we must not need them, so then they cut 6,000 positions,” nationwide.

Local 420 Executive Vice President Justin Tarovisky said, “that’s not safe to do whatsoever. These were positions that were allotted to us because of what dangers could happen inside of a prison.”

The problem extends beyond USP Hazelton, he said. Joe Rojas, president of Local 506 in Florida, agreed. He and others came to Preston County to support the Hazelton local. Rojas works at USP Coleman, the largest  prison complex in the country.

“The past two weeks, we had back-to-back riots in our rec yard,” Rojas said. “We had officers assaulted, a couple guys went to the hospital with head injuries. One guy, an inmate hit him in the mouth, another inmate hit one of our staff members. So it’s lack of staffing … it’s bad all over.”

Unfortunately, Rojas predicted, “we’re going to have another casualty, another staff member casualty, if this keeps up.” He agrees with President Donald Trump that gang members should be locked up, “but you’ve also got to staff the prisons.”

Coleman lost 173 positions and about 80 officers in its complement. Like the Hazelton workers, they are lobbying with their federal representatives to remedy the situation.

Fewer staff also could put the public at risk, the men said. “What happens, when you don’t have staffing, you might have escapes,” Rojas said, and they have  happened at other  facilities.

Heldreth noted that, after each violent incident at Hazelton, the BOP news release says the community was not at risk.

“But we are the community,” he noted. “There’s 800 staff here that have 800 families who live in this area, people we go to church with or family or friends. So it does affect the community, even if the violence doesn’t directly bleed outside the prison walls. We are your community.”

The Bureau of Prisons is relying on a practice called augmentation, using other prison staff  to fill officer positions. These workers received the same initial training as officers, Heldreth said.

“But to put them in officer positions, it’s dangerous for them and everyone else because they’re not as familiar with the inmates, the areas, the equipment they’ve got to utilize,” he said. “So in a dangerous prison like that, you have to know your inmates. You have to know your equipment and how you need to respond.”

This comes at a time when USP Hazelton exceeds its recommended maximum capacity, a situation Heldreth said he thinks exists nation wide, along with at most medium-security prisons, which Hazelton also has.

And, “all penitentiaries inherently have more violent incidents than the other security levels,” Heldreth said. And with augmentation, there can be more fights, more drugs, because there are fewer officers watching for them. Fights can take longer to break up with less staff, and inmates who are assaulted may not be reached as quickly by staff.

“All we can keep doing is keep going to the media, going to our elected officials and hitting it home,: Rojas said.

Tarovisky stood with teachers picketing earlier this year, during their 55 Strong campaign to get improved pay and benefits, and he compared that to Friday’s picket. The difference is correctional officers are barred by law from striking.

But, “you feel that energy, everybody just kind of doing the same thing 55 Strong did … I feel the camaraderie and people coming by and waving and honking their horns.”

People can also help by writing elected representatives to demand full staffing, the men said.

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