W.Va. prison staff union calls for more COs following inmate violence

There are nearly 40 CO vacancies and the medical department is staffed at about 69 percent at the prison


By Kathy Plum
The Dominion Post

HAZELTON, W. Va. — The union representing about 600 workers at the Hazelton federal prisons says it is “irresponsible and unfounded” for accusations to be levied against them without an investigation.

Richard Heldreth, president of Local 420 of the Federation of Government Employees, also detailed violence at the facility last week that injured three workers and renewed calls for adequate staffing at Hazelton.

Last week, Congresswoman Eleanor Homes Norton, D-D.C., asked the U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General to investigate alleged mistreatment of D.C. Code inmates at the prison, as well as the deaths of two D.C. inmates at Hazelton this year.

BOP facilities at Hazelton include a high-security federal prison with minimum-security satellite camp, a medium-security federal correctional institution and a female facility. In addition to those convicted of federal crimes, D.C. code felons are housed at Hazelton.

Heldreth said in an email that, “the allegations of inmate abuse … are absurd and ridiculous!”

“It is irresponsible and insulting that these unfounded accusations against my staff have been put out there without any type of investigation or independent review. The agency that we work for takes allegations of inmates abuse very seriously, they will not hesitate to investigate, discipline and refer these allegations for prosecution,” Heldreth wrote.

“My staff risk their lives every day inside those facilities to provide for their families and keep the community and inmates safe … It should come as no surprise that convicted felons within a high security prison are not always that concerned with the truth,” he said.

In addition to the two deaths at Hazelton this year, “there have been hundreds more violent incidents than that, but staff had nothing to do with causing these incidents,” Heldreth said.

He reiterated earlier concerns expressed by employees and mentioned by Norton in her letter that the Bureau of Prison’s practice of “augmenting” correctional officer staff with other prison employees adds to already dangerous situations.

Heldreth said Hazelton is, “dangerously understaffed in all departments.”

That includes nearly 40 correctional officer vacancies and the Health Services (medical) department being staffed at about 69 percent.

Recent inmate violence

There were “two major violent incidents,” at the medium-security facility on Friday, Heldreth said. In the first, three staff members were assaulted by a D.C. inmate who was “high on an unknown drug,” Heldreth said.

An officer’s wrist was lacerated and a vocational teacher’s back was bruised when the inmate struck them with a chair, and a lieutenant severely injured his knee during the struggle to restrain the inmate.

In a separate incident, “numerous inmates” were fighting in a different area of the prison, Heldreth said. The facility was put on lockdown for the weekend.

“Incidents like this illustrate why we need more staff, so that we can better manage the increasing levels of violence at Hazelton,” Heldreth wrote. “In more than 20 years of service, I have never witnessed a drug and violence epidemic in our agency like we have now.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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