W.Va. union official: Inmate death highlights understaffing problems

Richard Heldreth said the inmate’s death is part of a “very disturbing trend with increases in drugs and weapons being found at the complex”

By Corrections1 Staff

HAZELTON, W.Va. — A federal prison union official said understaffing in West Virginia prisons was one of the factor’s in the recent death of an inmate.

On Monday, the U.S. Penitentiary, which is a part of the Hazelton Federal Correctional Complex, reported that an inmate was killed following an altercation at the complex, the Preston County News & Journal reports. The two inmates involved used homemade weapons in the fight, according to the Dominion Post.

Staff responded to the incident immediately and separated the inmates before 48-year-old inmate Ian Thorne was pronounced dead.

Richard Heldreth, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 420, said Thorne’s death is part of a “very disturbing trend with increases in drugs and weapons being found at the complex.”

Heldreth said since Jan. 1, 2018, there have been more than “60 documented violent incidents at the FCC, and prisons at the complex have been ‘locked down’ nine times due to violence.” 

After the Trump administration announced a federal hiring freeze, the Department of Justice asked the Bureau of Prisons to eliminate 6,000 unfilled jobs, which includes 127 at the Hazelton facility.

Heldreth said the fatal incident shows the effect of having less staff at the facility. Heldreth said if the facility was properly staffed, it would help reduce the number of weapons like the ones used in the incident from being introduced at the facility. 

“Clearly, doing ‘less with less’ in an effort to save money is not working, and is certainly having a negative effect on the safe operation of the FCC,” he said.

Heldreth also pointed out to “augmentation” making things more difficult at the facility. Augmentation refers to staff from other departments such as secretaries, teachers and plumbers to work posts normally filled by COs.

While BOP staff receive a short, basic corrections training course, Heldreth said the training doesn’t properly “prepare them to work all of the specialized correctional officer assignments that we have.”

There were 785 out 863 authorized positions filled at the complex in October 2016, according to Heldreth. After the hiring freeze in 2017, only two dozen COs were hired at the end of the year.

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