Violent West Virginia prison plagued by officer shortages, pushing staffers to exhaustion

A West Virginia federal prison complex, cited in a scathing December Justice Department report on the murder of mob boss Whitey Bulger, is grappling with the most acute shortage of corrections officers of any facility across the seriously understaffed federal system.

The 72 officer vacancies at the Hazelton prison represent more than 16% of full officer staffing, forcing mandatory overtime shifts multiple times each week, according to agency records. And the short staffing persists even as officers at the complex, long regarded as one of the most violent bureau facilities, recently recovered a startling number of weapons.

During one shift this month, 30 knives were seized, including seven linked to a single inmate, staffers said. Days later, officers recovered makeshift body armor, padded with rolls of magazines, along with a dozen more knives.

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The weapons seizures are the largest in recent memory, according to staffers who warn that the growing 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 officers and other prison workers, describing an “extremely dangerous environment for inmates and staff.”.

Justin Tarovisky, the union president at Hazelton, said the “dire” conditions recall perhaps the most volatile period in the facility’s recent history when similar staffing shortages prevailed at the time of Bulger’s October 2018 beating death – the third inmate murdered in a six-month period.

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“Sometimes the worst has to happen before you get what you need,” Tarovisky said.

The Bureau of Prisons described staffing at Hazelton as “our top priority.”.

Requests for voluntary, two-week duty reassignments were being sent to other prisons Friday to assist in filling vacant officer and lieutenant positions at Hazelton, the agency said.

“We are actively recruiting to hire various positions including correctional officers,” the BOP said in a statement to USA TODAY, adding that the agency “takes seriously our duty to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody, as well as maintain the safety of correctional staff and the community.”.

‘All signals blinking 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 shifts hundreds of times. The frequency of the mandatory assignments, which tack additional time to regular shifts, have effectively made officers prisoners of the complex they serve, the union official said.

Some officers, Tarovisky said, are assigned additional hours three to five times a week. The so-called “mandates” can range from a half-hour of additional work to a full second shift.

“It’s now about self-preservation,” Tarovisky said. “Officers are calling in sick just to get a day off. When you add in this surge in weapons, all signals are blinking red.”.

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An officer assigned to the Jan. 12 shift, which yielded the 30 knives, said three officers had been held over from their regular shifts to fill gaps.

“When you are doing this multiple times a week, you are fatigued, you are less aware of what’s going on around you,” said the officer, who asked not to be identified out of concern for possible sanctions.

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“When you are running on fumes, you don’t pick up on how inmates are passing weapons and drugs. The inmates are aware of this, and they are looking to take advantage of any weakness.”.

The officer described the surge in weapons seizures as extraordinary.

“I’ve never seen anything like it one day, let alone one shift,” the officer said.

Halting the trafficking of such weapons is a continuing challenge, the agency said.

Officials said a variety of strategies are regularly deployed to stem the flow, from searches of cells and common areas to the use of metal detectors and body scanning devices.

“The introduction of contraband threatens staff and individuals in our custody, as well as public safety,” the bureau said.

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Staffing a persistent problem

In an interview with USA TODAY last month, BOP Director Colette Peters described persistent staffing shortages, which have shadowed the federal system for years, as the agency’s “number one priority.”.

At that time, the bureau reported that nearly 2,000 line officer positions were vacant out of 14,863 authorized. That number does not include supervisory-level officers.

Prisons have been so short-staffed that officials have long depended on the controversial practice of tapping secretaries, teachers, nurses, kitchen workers and other non-security staffers to patrol cellblocks, solitary confinement units and prison yards, often with little preparation for their new roles.

Known as “augmentation,” the practice has been condemned by lawmakers after the scope of its use was revealed in a series of reports by USA TODAY.

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“When you look at our group of employees prior to (the coronavirus pandemic), they were exhausted,” said Peters, who was appointed in August to help steady the troubled agency. “Then, they’ve been managing the pandemic for the last three years while the economy has changed and made it difficult to hire across this country in all fields, but particularly difficult in law enforcement.

“We are just having difficulty finding people who are available for employment,” Peters said in December, adding that hiring conditions vary widely in urban and rural areas.

Hazelton back in harsh spotlight

Just last month, Hazelton’s role in handling Bulger’s transfer was highlighted in a blistering 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 across the prison system, leaving the high-profile inmate, with a history as an FBI informant, extremely vulnerable.

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The inspector general’s review found that more than 100 agency officials were made aware of Bulger’s transfer and that “Hazelton personnel openly spoke about Bulger’s upcoming arrival in the presence of Hazelton inmates.”.

“This knowledge among Hazelton inmates subjected Bulger, due to his history, to enhanced risk of imminent harm upon his arrival at 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, down about 40 positions, union officials said then, forcing counselors and teachers to fill the void.