Guards 'Running on Fumes' at Violent, Short-Staffed Prison

'All signals are blinking red,' warns union official at USP Hazelton
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 27, 2023 5:30 PM CST
'All Signals Are Blinking Red' at Short-Staffed Federal Prison
USP Hazelton.   (Department of Justice)

A federal prison complex in West Virginia is desperately short on staff, and it's not hard to see why the Hazelton facility might be having trouble attracting workers: Union officials say short-staffing has made the notoriously violent prison even more dangerous, and mandatory overtime is so common that the guards themselves feel like prisoners, USA Today reports. USP Hazelton is suffering the most severe staff shortages of any federal prison, and overworked guards warn that fatigue makes it harder to detect weapons and other contraband. In a single shift earlier this month, 30 knives were found, including seven taken from one inmate.

"When you are running on fumes, you don't pick up on how inmates are passing weapons and drugs," one guard who asked to remain anonymous told USA Today. "The inmates are aware of this, and they are looking to take advantage of any weakness." There are currently 72 officer vacancies at Hazelton and Justin Tarovisky, the union president at Hazelton, says officers are getting mandatory overtime assignments around four days a week—and the assignments can be anywhere from 30 minutes to a full second shift. "It's now about self-preservation," Tarovisky says. "Officers are calling in sick just to get a day off. When you add in this surge in weapons, all signals are blinking red."

The Bureau of Prisons says hiring more workers at Hazelton is its "top priority" and requests have been sent to other prisons for voluntary two-week reassignments to the facility. USA Today notes that short-staffing is a major problem across the prison system and authorities have widely been using "augmentation": the practice of using non-security workers like nurses and teachers for tasks like patrolling cell blocks and prison yards, often with very little training. Tarovisky says the problem at Hazelton is at its worst since 2018, when Boston gangster James "Whitey Bulger," 89, was beaten to death within hours of being transferred to the prison. He was the third Hazelton inmate killed in the space of 40 days. (Last month, a watchdog said the death was the result of numerous BoP failures.)

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