A federal prison complex in West Virginia, cited in a scathing December Department of Justice report on the murder of mob boss Whitey Bulger, is facing the most acute shortage of corrections officers of any facility in the seriously understaffed federal system.
The 72 officer vacancies at Hazelton Prison represent more than 16% of the total staff, forcing mandatory overtime shifts several times a week, according to agency records. And the understaffing persists even as officers at the compound, long considered one of the department’s most violent facilities, recently recovered a surprising number of weapons.
During a shift this month, 30 knives were seized, including seven linked to a single detainee, officials said. Days later, officers recovered makeshift bulletproof vests padded with magazine rolls, along with a dozen more knives.
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The gun busts are the biggest in recent memory, according to officials who warn that the rising threat of violence combined with crippling officer fatigue represents a crisis in the making.
“This is a recipe for disaster,” said Shane Fausey, national president of the union representing prison officers and other prison workers, describing a “extremely dangerous environment for inmates and staff.”
Justin Tarovisky, president of the union at Hazelton, said the “terrible” conditions were reminiscent of perhaps the most volatile period in the facility’s recent history, when similar staffing shortages prevailed at the time of Bulger’s death by beating in October 2018 – the third arrested murdered in six months. period.
“Sometimes the worst has to happen before you get what you need,” Tarovisky said.
The Bureau of Prisons described the staff at Hazelton as “our top priority”.
Requests for voluntary two-week service reassignments have been being sent to other prisons on Friday to help fill vacant officer and lieutenant positions at Hazelton, the agency said.
“We are actively recruiting to hire a variety of positions, including correctional officers,” the BOP said in a statement to USA TODAY, adding that the agency “takes seriously our duty to protect individuals in our custody, as well as maintain the safety of correctional personnel and community”.
‘All signals flashing red’
What the facility desperately needs, Tarovisky said, is more officers and rest for the weary.
Last month, according to prison records, officers were forced to work overtime hundreds of times. The frequency of mandatory assignments, which add additional time to regular shifts, has effectively trapped police officers in the complex they serve, the union official said.
Some officers, Tarovisky said, are paid overtime three to five times a week. So-called “mandates” can range from half an hour of additional work to a full second shift.
“Now it’s about self-preservation,” Tarovisky said. “The cops are saying they’re sick just to take a day off. When you add that increase in guns, all the lights are flashing red.”
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An officer assigned to the Jan. 12 shift, who surrendered the 30 knives, said three officers were held back from their regular shifts to fill gaps.
“When you do this several times a week, you get tired, less aware of what’s going on around you,” said the officer, who asked not to be identified for fear of possible sanctions.
“When you’re exhausted, you don’t notice how the prisoners are passing around weapons and drugs. Prisoners are aware of this and seek to take advantage of any weakness.”
The official described the increase in gun seizures as extraordinary.
“I’ve never seen anything like it a day, let alone a shift,” said the officer.
Stopping trafficking in such weapons is an ongoing challenge, the agency said.
Officials said a variety of strategies are regularly employed to stem the flow, from searching cells and common areas to using metal detectors and body scanning devices.
“The introduction of contraband threatens employees and individuals in our custody, as well as public safety,” the department said.
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Personal a persistent problem
In an interview with USA TODAY last month, BOP Director Colette Peters described the persistent shortage of staff that has plagued the federal system for years as the agency’s “number one priority.”
At that time, the agency reported that about 2,000 line officer positions were vacant out of an authorized 14,863. This number does not include supervisory-level directors.
Prisons are so understaffed that authorities have long relied on the controversial practice of summoning secretaries, teachers, nurses, kitchen help and other non-security personnel to patrol cell blocks, solitary confinement units and prison yards, often with little preparation for his new prison. papers.
Known as “boosting,” the practice was condemned by lawmakers after the scope of its use was revealed in a series of USA TODAY reports.
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“When you look at our group of employees before (the coronavirus pandemic), they were exhausted,” said Peters, who was appointed in August to help stabilize the troubled agency. “So they’ve been managing the pandemic for the last three years as the economy has changed and made hiring across the country difficult in all fields, but particularly difficult in law enforcement.
“We’re just having a hard time finding people available for employment,” Peters said in December, adding that hiring conditions vary widely in urban and rural areas.
Hazelton back in the spotlight
Last month, Hazelton’s role in handling Bulger’s transfer was highlighted in a scathing review by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
The report found that Bulger’s transfer from a Florida prison to Hazelton had become an open secret throughout the prison system, leaving the high-profile inmate with a background as an FBI informant extremely vulnerable.
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The inspector general’s review found that more than 100 agency officials were informed of Bulger’s transfer and that “Hazelton personnel spoke openly of Bulger’s arrival in the presence of Hazelton inmates”.
“This acquaintance among Hazelton inmates placed Bulger, because of his history, at greater risk of imminent harm upon arrival in Hazelton,” according to the report.
Less than 12 hours after his arrival, Bulger was found dead in his bunk.
At the time of Bulger’s murder, Hazelton was facing another officer shortage, some 40 positions short, union members said at the time, forcing councilors and teachers to fill the void.
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