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Hazelton union concerned about mounting violence in prison

BRUCETON MILLS — A large knife found on an inmate, a fight in the same housing unit later that day and a stabbing on Christmas Eve.

All three have recently taken place at United States Penitentiary Hazelton, according to union officials.

President of AFGE Local 420 AFGE Justin Tarovisky blames the increasing violence at the prison, which houses about 3,300 inmates, on a lack of leadership from the warden, Richard Hudgins.

“Over the last few weeks there has been an immense amount of violence heightened at the prison due to the lack of leadership from our warden who is retiring this month,” Tarovisky said.

When The Dominion Post asked to speak with Hudgins or for a statement about the union’s concerns about rising violence at the prison, The Federal Bureau of Prisons, through its office of public affairs, declined to comment on “anecdotal allegations.”

Despite warnings from officers on shift after finding the knife, management did nothing and, later that day, a massive fight broke out injuring multiple inmates and endangering staff, said Richard Heldreth, Council of Prison Locals 33 Mid-Atlantic Region vice president.

“What we suggested is keep the place locked down until you conduct shakedowns,” Tarovisky said. “So then the warden sends out an email saying that he’s going to do that and then two days later, he opens the inmates up and they didn’t conduct any shakedowns.”

Two days later, there was a stabbing that sent an inmate to the hospital, Tarovisky said.

In Tarovisky’s opinion, not doing shakedowns and disregarding safety procedures is disrespectful to the staff and community and they’re lucky nothing worse happened.

If a large scale search had been done, maybe the stabbing wouldn’t have happened, Heldreth said.

He said oftentimes in the BOP when a warden is getting ready to check out, things aren’t run as efficiently as they could be and he wants a smooth transition.

The BOP statement said it is committed to ensuring the safety of inmates, staff and the public.

“We can assure you there are qualified management staff at the institution to ensure FCC Hazelton operates in a safe and secure manner and provides the programs that are critical for successful prisoner reform,” the BOP statement said.

When asked how the violence at Hazelton compared to other federal prisons, Heldreth said it’s up near the top and one of the most violent in the country.

“Between the leadership or the lack thereof and the understaffing, and it’s just a lot of penitentiaries have a hard time when first activating,” Heldreth said. “And Hazleton is one of the newer ones. It opened in 2004.”

Heldreth said it takes awhile to figure out how to house inmates in a way they can live with each other and, unfortunately, that’s a trial and error thing.

However, Heldreth said management is a big part of it.

“A lot of it’s the management. … We’ve had a string of bad ones. We’ve had a couple of good ones too. But most of them have been probably bottom tier I would say. Being polite.”

Tarovisky also said bad leadership was nothing new. He pointed to the Whitey Bulger incident – the infamous Boston mob boss was found beaten to death in October 2018 – as an example.

“We were screaming from the rooftops once again, you know, there were three homicides, multiple inmate suicides, we were clearly understaffed. The worst we ever have. People weren’t leaving work,” Tarovisky said.  “I mean, it was miserable.”

Tarovisky said the prison is starting down that road again and inmates feed off higher levels of violence — and it’s not a road the officers want to travel. 

“We just want to be safe and secure. Not for just inmates, but for staff that have to respond to these incidents, and also, you know, affects the community as well,” Tarovisky said.

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