Cops and Courts

Hazelton corrections officers protest staffing issues and unsafe conditions

Corrections officers and staff members of the United States Penitentiary (USP) in Hazelton and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 420 union, came out from behind the bars and barbed wire on Friday in an effort to make the public aware of staffing issues at the federal corrections complex (FCC). The workers were protesting the shortages, which they contend are creating unsafe working conditions and could potentially cause risk to public safety. 

AFGE Local 420 President Justin Tarovisky said the informational protest was meant to bring to light to just how understaffed the prison – comprised of a high-security U.S. penitentiary for males and a medium-security federal correctional institution for males and females – has become over the last year with seemingly no help from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) officials. 

“Particularly the lack of change from the Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters,” Tarovisky said. “And also, the managers and administrators in Grand Prairie, Texas (Human Resource Services Center for the FBOP), that are not hiring qualified applicants that apply at FCC Hazelton.” 

The corrections workers say the chronic understaffing has resulted in officers working vast amounts of mandated overtime and employees including medical staff and counselors being assigned to work as correctional officers. 

Requiring employees who normally work as cooks, nurses and teachers to perform the duties of correctional officers – an approved process known as augmentation – was initially justified so that BOP wouldn’t have to hire new staff for a week or so while officers were out doing training. But according to AFGE, the agency has abused the practice due to staffing cuts. 

“I’ll tell you – we have 84 correctional officers that we’re down here at Hazelton,” Tarovisky said. “We need help. We need retention to keep the people here. We’re asking for 25% retention.” 

Tarovisky said there is interest from potential new hires, but the “bureaucracy” in the hiring process is not using “common sense.” 

A few months ago, Tarovisky said FCC held a job fair at West Virginia University and received a decent amount of interest, but they have yet to see a new hire. 

“They had 60 qualified applications, but none of them have been hired because of the bureaucracy with Grand Prairie, Texas, and the consolidated staffing unit.” 

The consolidated staffing unit handles the BOP’s automated application process. According to the BOP’s website, all applications must be completed online, with some exceptions in rare circumstances. 

Donald Murphy with the FBOP Office of Public Affairs told The Dominion Post, “In general, the process of hiring applicants is the responsibility of each respective institution’s Human Resources Department, including FCC Hazleton.” 

But how many applications are making it to those respective institutions’ Human Resources Department after the initial vetting of the consolidated staffing unit? 

“The problem is if your hours don’t line up, if your college credits don’t line up, they’re disqualifying you – they’re not even getting you in the door,” Tarovisky explained. 

“Common sense hiring has completely lapsed with the BOP,” he said. “Are you an American citizen? That is a requirement to work. Are you a felon? Do you have a criminal record? Can you pass a UA (urinalysis) test? These are simple things.  

“Why are people in Texas disqualifying people here at Hazelton from working? It’s completely backwards from when I started 15 years ago,” he said. “When I started, I just turned in my application, I answered a few questions, and they were bringing me in for a UA test right away and sitting down and talking to me like an individual. Years ago, they brought you in and sat you down and had a conversation with you – common sense hiring, as long as you met the major requirements. 

“Again 60 people – not one of them were hired,” he said in disgust. 

Tarovisky said he knows it is possible to hire en masse, because after infamous mobster Whitey Bulger was killed at the prison in 2018, the BOP sent Bryan Antonelli, deemed “the fixer” by the The New York Times, to remedy a similar staffing situation. 

“Two other inmates were savagely murdered that year and we were knocking on the door just like this about how bad conditions are getting and what changes they’re not doing,” Tarovisky stated. “He came in and was able to hire over 120 staff within six months because he was using these tools, not hampering them. I know it’s possible. The BOP has lost their way with hiring.” 

In recent months, the Pennsylvania State Troopers dropped some of their requirements for applying in an effort to increase recruitment. Corrections officers are wondering why FBOP is not trying to do the same. 

“We need change. Why is one of the most prestigious law enforcement agencies – the PA State Troopers – changing their requirements, but here at FCC Hazelton we’ve gotten worse on trying to handcuff applicants? 

“We’ve got training.  We send you to the academy and if you don’t pass the academy, you don’t get the job, just like the military,” he said. “These are common sense things that these people have completely lost touch with because they are not in the field – they’re not these guys working in one of the most dangerous prisons in the country.  It doesn’t hurt them – they’re up in Washington, D.C., and Grand Prairie, Texas – they don’t have to watch any inmates at one of the most dangerous prisons. It’s ridiculous.” 

Joe Rojas, a Union Advocate and corrections officer at USP Coleman in Florida, the largest federal prison in the country, came to join his Hazelton colleagues in protest.  

“I am here because I know what they are going through,” Rojas said. “What’s happening in Hazelton has happened at Coleman, what’s happening at Coleman is happening at Hazelton, what’s happening in Hazelton and Coleman is happening in California. 

“All our prisons. It’s a disgrace,” he said. “I’ve been in this agency for 29 years. I’ve seen the good, I’ve seen the bad, and we’re in the ugly stage and I don’t see no end in sight. I feel bad for our fellow officers. They’re exhausted, they’re working double shifts back-to-back, and that’s not including going back and forth to work so you’re talking about maybe 18-hour days back-to-back.” 

Both Tarovisky and Rojas said they are already seeing the negative effects of the staff shortage which poses a threat to not only officer and inmate safety inside, but should an inmate escape, public safety is also affected. 

“It’s easy to say, ‘War on crime’ and ‘lock these guys up,’ but somebody’s gotta watch these inmates and it’s gotta be us,” Rojas said. “If you don’t give us the manpower to watch these inmates then what’s going to happen? You’re going to have an uprising.” 

Rojas said USP Coleman has had eight homicides this year so far and is the prison were the disgraced U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, was recently stabbed by another inmate. 

“Inmates have all the weapons. Inmates have all the ingenuity,” Rojas said. “Inmates can see the lack of staff and take advantage.” 

“What leads to homicides? What leads to inmates bringing in contraband or stabbing each other or causing riots or disturbances?” Tarovisky prompted. “It all goes to lack of staffing, safety and security. Simple things. If you don’t have the bodies to monitor it, what happens – you could potentially get away with murder.” 

The correctional officers realize the risk of the service they provide and want to make sure everyone – staff, inmates and the public – are safe, but are finding it increasingly difficult to do their jobs because those currently working are working mandated extra shifts four to five times a week. 

“I can tell you right now an officer got in a car accident two weeks ago because he was mandated four days out of the week – 16-hour shifts,” Tarovisky said. “It’s starting to take a toll on people – people are quitting. People don’t want to be mandated four to five times a week. They’ll go work at Sheetz or the bank or somewhere else – it’s not worth it.” 

A hearse and a casket set up at the protest site was meant to provoke the thought “that could potentially happen to us, because now they are vacating critical posts,” Tarovisky said. 

In addition to potential violent consequences inside the prison – health, marital and family problems could begin to unfold for people working such long hours. 

“It’s a serious issue and the agency is oblivious to this,” Rojas said. 

Tarovisky was very critical of FBOP Director Colette S. Peters’ lack of knowledge during her testimony on the BOP staff issues before Congress last week. 

“She didn’t even know how many vacancies she had in the Bureau of Prisons … they eviscerated her on the stand … she didn’t even know how many vacancies she had,” he said again in disbelief. 

Both Tarovisky and Rojas said that money could help improve the situation, but the hire-on bonuses currently being promoted by BOP won’t help – they need something with longevity. 

“Money talks, benefits talk,” Rojas said. “We only get 33% of our pension compared to local and state law enforcement agencies that get 80% or more.” 

Rojas described the BOP pay scale as “archaic,” stating when he started in 1995, the BOP was the highest paid agency and now it’s not even close to that. 

“You’re going to have the National Guard watching these prisons because no one wants to work in them,” he said. 

Murphy said FBOP and FCC Hazelton “are committed to ensuring appropriate staffing levels to maintain the safety and security of employees, incarcerated individuals and the institution. We are actively seeking to fill vacant positions with a particular focus on Correctional Officer vacancies, and we continue to evaluate and use a breadth of employment incentives to attract and retain staff. “ 

Murphy said FBOP has been transparent as it pertains to staffing levels and its hiring initiatives.  

He told The Dominion Post that staffing at the Hazelton facility remains one of the agency’s top priorities and they are using a variety of social media networks and platforms to advertise and network with potential candidates.   

“We have an updated and targeted approach towards branding and marketing to attract quality candidates to our organization,” Murphy stated.  “Recruitment efforts include but are not limited to, Google Ad campaigns, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Indeed Ads and job postings, recruitment videos on YouTube, billboard advertisements, virtual recruitment events, and recruitment through various professional organizations, including the military. 

“Maintaining fully staffed institutions is a key priority for the FBOP as it affects the safety and security of our institutions, the wellness of our employees, and the well-being of those in our custody,” he concluded. 

While corrections officers are unionized, they are unable to go on strike because they are law enforcement, so protests like the one held Friday are one of the only ways to get their demands heard by the public. 

Tarovisky said they are asking the public to take notice and reach out to state senators and congressmen in West Virginia and surrounding states to push for a change.