Editorials, Opinion

Inmates are still people

Alleged abuse at Hazelton must be investigated

Most everything we’ve seen in the headlines recently related to jails has been about the (still ongoing) staffing crisis. But Hazelton federal prison in Preston County made headlines this past week for a very different — and disturbing — reason.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito was one of three senators (two Republican and one Democrat) who wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking for an investigation into alleged misconduct at Hazelton.

“These reports,” the letter said, “combined with public reporting on FCC Hazelton’s dire staffing shortages and proliferation of weapons contraband, paint a grim picture …”

“Grim” is one way to describe it.

Among the allegations are: a group of inmates escaped from the prison camp and supervisory staff attempted to cover it up; supervisory staff falsified documents, encouraged inmate abuse and covered up alleged abuse and escapes of incarcerated individuals; staff members used restrictive housing (formerly called “solitary confinement”) as a punishment in violation of Bureau of Prisons policy, and staff engaged in a pattern of physical abuse of inmates residing in Special Housing Units (a type of restrictive housing); staff repeatedly directed racial slurs against minorities towards other staff members and incarcerated individuals; staff urinated on prisoner property; staff forced inmates to urinate and defecate on themselves as a condition of being released from restrictive custody; and staff assaulting an inmate, breaking the individual’s ribs.

The allegation of falsifying documents specifically includes altering or fabricating medical assessments, incident reports, duty rosters and time and attendance sheets, along with requests to tamper with security cameras to cover up inmate escapes.

We are joining Capito and her colleagues in calling for an investigation into these serious allegations. Especially the claims that Hazelton staff essentially tortured inmates physically (by assaulting them) and mentally (through isolation and humiliation). Particularly concerning is the unnecessary and excessive use of what is essentially solitary confinement, which studies have linked to increased suicide and violence among inmates, as well as increased likelihood of reoffending once released.

Any investigations into the alleged misconduct at Hazelton must be done by an independent party. It cannot be trusted to any kind of in-house “internal affairs,” because as the senators’ letter says, “The employees engaged in these practices have not been disciplined, and, in some cases, received promotions, despite open investigations into their misconduct.”

These claims must be fully investigated and, if any prove to be true, the culprits must be removed from Hazelton and safeguards put in place to prevent such travesties from happening again.

Being convicted of a crime and sent to prison does not — and should not — mean that someone is stripped of their humanity. If we want offenders to reform and rejoin society as productive and law-abiding citizens, then they can’t be treated as less-than-human during their incarceration.