Chaos at USP Hazelton has staff on edge

PRESTON COUNTY, W.Va. (WDTV)-- The USP Hazelton Prison made national headlines when the infamous Whitey Bulger was killed by another inmate.

Bulger being one of three homicides in 2018 alone. The limited staffing has played a big role in two attacks, just days into the new year.

"Whenever you have less staff there, you have less people to respond to incidents at the prison. Less people to be searching for weapons, drugs those types of things. It's definitely impacted the violence we see day-to-day," said Richard Heldreth, the President of the Local 420 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

On Friday, an inmate allegedly assaulted four workers and administration called for a lockdown.

On Saturday, during this lockdown, another inmate allegedly kicked an officer and punched a staff member.

"Inmates are secured to their cells. All programming, things like that is curtailed. Visitation is curtailed," said Heldreth.

In 2017 a hiring freeze forced Hazelton to go a year without hiring, so Heldreth says this has sparked levels in attacks.

He also says they have 721 staff members but thousands of inmates in the 4 institutions.

"We have hired about a dozen or so officers in the last two months. The only problem is its barely keeping up with the turnover and the amount of officers we're losing," said Heldreth.

Transfers, resignations and retirements are some of the reasons for the loss. Heldreth says they had 880 people on staff two years ago before the agency lowered the numbers to 790.

"They're doing their best to do their job. They're well trained and a very professional staff. We're going to do our job no matter what, but it's a hit to morale between the staffing challenges," said Heldreth.

With the government shutdown on day 17, Heldreth says it's leaving a not so positive impact on the prison's current standing.

"We can't hire staff right now. We can't bring in the people that we need and it just comes at a really bad time. It's causing an un-safe environment to be even worse," said Heldreth.

Heldreth says the prison is still on lockdown will remain so until administration finishes their review of the recent incidents.

Heldreth says with more staff members, incidents like these could have been stopped much quicker.

In a statement from Congressman McKinley, he said, "The most recent incidents at USP Hazelton remind us of the need for adequate staffing in our federal prisons. Staffing shortages are leading to dangerous conditions for correctional officers and inmates alike. Our correctional officers put their lives on the line to keep our communities safe, and they deserve to go to work knowing they are as safe as possible. The Bureau of Prisons must take steps to address this chronic problem."