Remember the staff at the prisons

After working in local law enforcement in Taylor County, I pursued employment with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1997. Since that time I have been stationed at four different institutions of varying security level. I never imagined that the organization that I was so proud to work for, would spiral into the dangerously underfunded mess that it has become.

A prison system that was once the leader in correctional techniques and technology has become nothing more than a cost savings-driven shadow of what it used to be. In the past 10 years I have watched as we have been forced to take huge staffing cuts, while the inmate population has soared. We are forced to manage the high security inmate population at Hazelton with staffing numbers that would not have even been considered sufficient to manage a low or medium security institution 10 years ago.

On shift, it is common for correctional staff to be outnumbered by inmates at over 100 to 1 ratios. The administration routinely attempts to debunk such claims by stating that typical penitentiaries are staffed at 4 to 1 ratios, but this is nothing more than an attempt to mislead the public. They also do not take into account staff being split over three shifts and staff that are assigned to cover days off or vacation. Ask them what the typical inmate to staff ratio on evening shift (4 p.m. to midnight) or morning shift (midnight to 8 a.m.) are.

I’ll tell you now that it is bare bones. If you subtract support staff and officers that physically can not leave the area that they are in for security reasons, you are left with a handful of staff that are available to manage the inmate population and respond to emergencies.

The administration usually responds to this fact by stating that the institution is “staffed at 98 percent” or some other form of number game. What they don’t tell you is that the percentage that they quote is that of a number that they have made up themselves, and has been increasingly lowered over the years. We are constantly asked to do more with less, and it has led us to a very dangerous time period in the Bureau of Prisons:

A time when we are not permitted to carry any type of means of self defense, such as pepper spray or batons, because we are expected to always reason with homicidal inmates serving multiple life terms.

A time when it is more important that we wear ties and blazers and look professional than wear uniforms that provide the utility that is necessary, for fear that we look too intimidating to the inmates.

A time when we are not even permitted to wear stab-resistant vests to save our own lives, even though they are widely and effectively used in state prisons and county jails across the country.

A time when an officer in a housing unit supervises 130 of the worst that society has to offer, all alone, and with nothing but a radio, handcuffs and his or her wits to rely on.

Every staff member takes on this occupation knowing that they face the probability of frequent violence. There is a popular quote that “prisons are an inherently dangerous place.” But the federal prisons are becoming needlessly dangerous places, because of the power of the bottom line and the importance of political correctness.

Recently, an officer at one of our other U.S. penitentiaries paid the ultimate price for this nonsense. Officer Jose Rivera, a 22-year old veteran of the Navy who had only been working for the Bureau of Prisons for 10 months, was brutally stabbed and murdered by two inmates at the US Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif. An institution that is almost identical to USP Hazelton.

For officer Rivera, it is too late for stab-resistant vests or pepper spray. It is too late to ensure that the Bureau of Prisons is funded at an adequate level that we might have enough of our brothers and sisters present to respond to his call for help.

Make no mistake, if the Bureau of Prisons remains unchanged, this can and will happen in your back yard in West Virginia as well. Every year we confiscate hundreds of lethal homemade weapons from the inmate population. Every month there are numerous assaults and acts of violence within the prison. Just recently there was an incident at Hazelton in which approximately 15 inmates armed with homemade knives and other weapons stormed a housing unit and attacked a smaller group of inmates. Such bold acts of violence are common place.

There have been two brutal inmate murders in the last three years, and many more serious assaults that would have been murders if not for a dash of luck and the dedicated work of our correctional and medical staff. Two officers were also savagely stabbed with homemade knives, but were thankfully spared, one after having boiling liquid thrown into his face. There have been hostage situations, suicides, scaldings and beatings. Just about every flavor of violence you can imagine.

That is why I write this now. I urge everyone reading this to ask their leaders in congress and the senate the important questions. Why are we putting our sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers at such a needless risk? Why are our brothers and sisters prohibited from wearing stab-resistant vests or carrying self defense weapons?

Why are our tired neighbors forced to work many hours of mandatory forced overtime in an environment where one mistake could cost someone their life, because the budget has been reduced and staff numbers have been slashed? Please ask these questions before we lose another brother or sister.

Please keep the family of officer Rivera in your thoughts and prayers. When you are driving down I-68 and you see the towers or the bright lights of the penitentiary, think about the outnumbered and under-equipped staff that are walking within those walls just trying to earn a living for their family.

Turn down the radio and open your window as you pass ... you may even hear the emergency sirens. For honest information about USP Hazelton and other happenings throughout the Bureau of Prisons visit:

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