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Manchin letter asks BOP director to act for Hazelton workers

Over the past few months, corrections officers (COs) at the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) Hazelton have become increasingly vocal about a potentially dangerous number of vacancies and a significant amount of mandated overtime.

With some of the most dangerous convicted criminals in the country housed at the facility, workers say the shortages are creating a potentially dangerous situation for both staff and inmates. Just a few years ago, famed Boston mobster Whitey Bulger was brutally murdered within hours of arriving at the Preston County complex.

After significant media coverage of the workers’ plight following a protest by the workers’ American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 420 union held in September, West Virginia State Senators are making efforts on their behalf.

In a letter dated Nov. 2, 2023, Senator Joe Manchin urges Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) Director Colette Peters to take action, beginning with approving a 25% retention request the workers have made.

Manchin’s letter begins, “Dear Director Peters, I write to express support for efforts to recruit and retain qualified correctional officers (COs) and staff at Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) Hazelton, including a 25 percent retention incentive bonus.

“The request for a group retention incentive of 25 percent for all FCC Hazelton staff was approved by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and is pending consideration at BOP Headquarters.

“FCC Hazelton faces a dangerous staffing shortage that, while challenging, could be improved by providing current employees with a much-deserved pay increase. As you work to improve the safety of BOP staff and inmates, I respectfully request that you approve a 25 percent retention incentive for all FCC Hazelton staff in good standing.”

The Senator goes on to highlight data which showed FCC Hazelton, which houses over 1,500 inmates, has averaged between 70-85 CO vacancies and 30-45 staff vacancies since the beginning of the year.

“The dire staffing shortage has created a volatile situation threatening staff and inmates alike,” Manchin said in the letter.

Manchin expressed additional concern regarding the mandatory overtime, with some staff working sixteen hour shifts multiple times per week.

The Senator indicated he understood recruitment is challenging, but implored Peters to sign the worker’s retention request saying, “A retention incentive for all FCC Hazelton staff in good standing would reduce attrition and augmentation, allowing BOP to continue the difficult process of raising staffing levels back to normal.”

Manchin’s letter concluded, “Tackling FCC Hazelton’s staffing shortage should be a top BOP policy priority. Recruitment near FCC Hazelton, a rural area, is challenging.

“In addition to supporting AFGE Local 420’s recruitment efforts, BOP should use every available tool, including retention incentives, to reduce attrition.

“Retention incentives are a readily available tool that has been authorized in the past by BOP for other federal correctional facilities facing staffing shortages.

“As you work to advance BOP’s mission of protecting staff and inmates, I respectfully request that you approve a 25 percent retention incentive for all FCC Hazelton staff in good standing as soon as possible. Thank you for your prompt attention to this issue. I look forward to receiving your response.”

The Dominion Post contacted FBOP regarding Manchin’s letter and the possible reasons the retention incentive has not been approved or a timeline on when a decision might be made.

A representative from the FBOP Office of Congressional and Public Affairs responded.

“The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) takes seriously our duty to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody, as well as maintain the safety of correctional employees and the community,” the statement said.

“We are in receipt of the letter you reference. The FBOP responds directly to Members of Congress. Out of respect and deference to Members, we do not share our Congressional correspondence with the media or elaborate on the contents of such correspondence.”

However, they did provide more detailed responses to other questions, not related to the letter, like what other steps the FBOP feels they are taking to fill the vacancies and how they are showing current employees filling the positions is a priority.

“Across the United States, law enforcement agencies struggle to hire officers,” they said. “The FBOP has committed significant resources to recruiting and hiring. Our National Recruitment Office has dedicated full-time employees working specifically on recruiting and hiring Correctional Officers and other field positions and they support our local institutions who host a monthly recruitment event at each institution.”

They claim other efforts include a recruitment bonus to employees who refer CO applicants who are hired by FBOP.

“This resulted in over 500 new hires this year,” they said, however that number is nationally and not specific to Hazelton.

“We pay new Correctional Officers a recruitment bonus of $10,000 or 25% of salary, whichever is higher,” they said as another example.

In addition, they say exceptions to a Department of Justice policy can now be made to raise the maximum entry age of a Law Enforcement Officer (LEO).

However, according to a media advisory on the subject in October, this exception will expire on Sept. 30, 2024; therefore, all applicants must enter on duty before Sept. 30, 2024. But, from now until then, non-veteran preference-eligible qualified applicants who haven’t reached their 40th birthday will be eligible for certification and employment consideration.

President of the AFGE Local 420 union, Justin Tarovisky, has been advocating for the Hazelton workers through local media since their attention-grabbing protest.

Tarovisky said workers feel BOP leaders have not put forth enough, if any, effort to help improve their situation, and common sense is not being used in the hiring process.

“While our officers are being crushed by mandatory overtime, these people have been sitting in their offices in D.C. and Texas, these administrators, doing nothing,” he told The Dominion Post on Friday.

“We’ve had two vacant human resources positions open for 11 months. How can you hire Ruby, WVU – anywhere, unless you have Human Resources managers?,” he questioned before frustratedly exclaiming, “Your problem is hiring, and you don’t have two human resources managers!”

Tavorisky said from what he can tell, little has been done to fill those positions.

“The Director of the Bureau of Prisons and Grand Prairie Texas, should – should use some leadership and assign somebody here until the staffing goes up,” he suggested. “I don’t care where they are at, they could be in Grand Prairie Texas, where they disqualify our applicants all the time – just somebody that has some knowledge.”

Tavorisky also suggested altering hiring requirements, “Pennsylvania changed their hiring requirements because they are so short, why hasn’t the BOP done that? It all goes back to common sense hiring.”

When asked if he thought the BOP maximum age exemption would help the situation at Hazelton, “I mean that’s two years – thanks for the gift I guess,” he said sarcastically, but then became serious, “But why isn’t it higher?

“I’d like to see it go higher than that. You upped it two years, why not up it another five?,” he questioned. “If you pass a drug test and background check and you are physically able to perform the duty – you see police officers until they are 60 to 70 years old helping in the community.”

Tavorisky said the union workers are thankful for the display of support from Senator Manchin and they have also been speaking with Senator Shelley Moore Capito. He said the group would welcome support from any other West Virginia lawmakers or officials who may be able to help.

As for Tavorisky’s theory on why their retention request still awaits approval?

“That’s a great question. I mean the agency put in for it a few months back, but again, I guess these people don’t get mandated, so they don’t care. To me, that’s the problem,” he said. They get to go home at the end of the day. I hate to dumb it down like that, but a lot of times people don’t realize something until it hits them in the face. And the people in D.C. and Texas, they don’t understand. They’re not in the field, they’re not seeing what these poor officers are going through.”