Chris Schulz Published

Prison Workers Protest Staffing Shortage

A group of people stand on the side of the road behind a casket. Many hold signs, some of which read "BOP Director Peters, Authorize Direct Hiring!!!" and "STOP Vacating Officers CRITICAL Posts" and "2 Tired 2 Stay Awake #WalkingDead"
Workers from FCC Hazelton pose with a casket at a protest against understaffing on Sept. 22, 2023.
Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On Friday, workers from Federal Correctional Complex Hazelton in Preston County protested in Morgantown against what they call dangerously low staffing at the prison. 

More than a dozen correctional officers, medical staff and counselors from Hazelton lined Cheat Lake Road outside of Morgantown Friday morning to demand help at their federal correctional complex. 

Hazelton houses a correctional institution and women’s facility, as well as a high-security United States penitentiary. 

Justin Tarovisky, union president of Local 420 of the American Federation of Government Employees at FCC Hazleton, said the facility has more than 80 correctional officer positions vacant, which leaves other staff like teachers and counselors to fill in the gaps in a practice called augmentation.

“We’re taking teachers away from their jobs to be augmented. We’re taking other programs, the facilities, the workers,” Tarovisky said. “They’re taking other staff that aren’t correctional officers, and they’re putting them in correctional officer spots because we’re vacated.”

Protesters say existing officers are often mandated to work 16 hour shifts several times a week. Tarovisky said the issue is further exacerbated by not having local hiring authority. He said applications to work at Hazelton are sent to a bureau of prisons office in Texas for review, and most are rejected.

“When you have a job fair in the heart of Morgantown, West Virginia with 60 applicants and hardly anyone were hired, we have a problem with our hiring,” Tarovisky said.

The shortage poses safety risks for inmates and staff alike, as well as other problems. Lucretia Row, a nurse at Hazelton, said reduced officer staffing means delays in getting inmates their medication.

“Our job is to provide treatment,” Row said. “We can’t do that, because they have to stay locked in because we don’t have staff to let them out.” 

Row said many mornings the facility’s “pill line” is delayed by several hours. If inmates are put on lockdown due to low staffing, medication must be brought to each cell individually, further delaying dosage. Row highlighted the danger this poses for inmates, particularly diabetics, as it pushes morning and evening dosages closer together than is medically advised. 

“That’s detrimental to things like insulin. Insulin should not be given that close together,” she said. “Not only that, they’re not getting fed in a timely manner because they’re being held in longer. It’s not just about our officer’s rights, it’s about the rights of these inmates as well. They deserve that just treatment and it’s hard on our officers to keep up with everything, because there’s so few of them.”

Staffing issues are not unique to Hazelton. Joe Rojas works at FCC Coleman in Florida, and drove up to support his fellow union members Friday.

“Working for the bureau for 29 years, this is the worst that I’ve ever seen it when it comes to staffing,” he said.

Rojas said he is concerned that reduced staffing across the country will result in serious consequences, including death. He said he doesn’t want to see anyone get hurt. 

“We’re here to make the public aware of the possibilities of an escape or the possibilities of an unfortunate homicide,” he said.

In a document prepared by the American Federation of Government Employees, the union said there are currently 12,731 correctional officers in the Bureau of Prisons, down from 13,808 officers in 2020. This is despite several years of presidential requests that there be 20,466 correctional officers, and allocated funding for those positions. 

Last week, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) joined with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in calling on the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons to investigate inmate abuse and staffing shortages at FCC Hazelton.

Union members are asking the public to contact their federal representatives about the officer shortage.