WASHINGTON – The union representing correctional officers and staff at U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton in West Virginia says the reported murder of convicted gangster James “Whitey” Bulger at the prison highlights severe understaffing at federal prisons nationwide.
“Today’s reported death at USP Hazelton, while concerning, is unsurprising,” American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. said. “Federal prisons across the country are suffering from severe understaffing, and the situation is perhaps no more dire than at Hazelton.”
The high-security prison has been severely understaffed for years, which has recently been compounded by further cuts. One in five positions that were authorized two years ago are vacant today – including correctional officers and medical staff. As a result, the prison staff has been forced to work under conditions where teachers, administrative assistants, and accountants fill in shifts as officers and first responders to violent incidents.
“Our union’s call to fill these vacant positions unfortunately has fallen on deaf ears,” said Rick Heldreth, president of AFGE Local 420, which represents more than 800 employees at Hazelton. “We weren’t even notified by the prison warden about today’s death for hours after it had occurred. This incident only exacerbates the tense work environment at the prison and highlights how neglectful management is readily putting all staff in danger.”
AFGE is calling for the Bureau of Prisons to immediately fill all vacancies and fully staff our federal prisons.
Ensuring there is proper staffing and security at federal facilities is critical not only for the safety of workers and inmates but for the entire community, said Dan Doyle, national vice president for AFGE District 4, which includes West Virginia.
“There needs to be a full accounting of why this administration continues to put our officers – and the inmates they are hired to guard – in danger,” Doyle said. “Until that happens, we will likely see more officers and inmates put in harm’s way.”