Our Voices > Dispatches from Inside

A Prison Guard Speaks Out: It’s a ‘Toxic Dumpster Fire’

Feb 24, 2023

By Pam Bailey

I have written before about the hotbed of human rights violations that is the Hazelton federal prison complex in West Virginia. Most of the stories I shared are from the medium-security (FCI) facility, but only because the high-security penitentiary (USP) on the same grounds is almost always locked down, making it difficult to communicate with the men inside. (The situation is so bad a group of family members started a petition in protest.) Recently, a correctional officer at the FCI began chatting anonymously with me via Facebook, sharing his own anger, frustration and fear. (He is one of the relatively few COs who has made friends among the prisoners, and he got my name from them.) It’s not often I have an opportunity to chat so frankly with prison staff. And he agreed to an interview for publication, as long as he remained unnamed. Below is an edited/condensed version of our conversation.

When and why did you start working at Hazelton?

Before coming to work for the BOP (federal Bureau of Prisons), I was a chef at a restaurant. But four years ago, I applied to work at the prison, which is about 50 minutes from my home. The penitentiary had a reputation of being dangerous, but I had several friends and a family member there and the money and benefits were good.

Yes, I knew it was called Misery Mountain, but it didn’t stop me. For the past several years, though, I’ve come to learn that the name is fitting: The way the inmates are treated and the low morale among the staff are sort of symbolized by the weather. We’re perched on the side of a mountain, with nothing to block the wind; it got to -2 this winter.

When I first started, though, the work was good. In fact, it was actually almost enjoyable to go to work every day. At that time, mandates (when you’re required to stay for a second eight-hour shift; if you refuse, you can be written up) were just once every two weeks or more. The fewer mandates and adequate staffing made it so much better than it is now.

The decent pay isn’t as good as it used to be either. Inflation has gone wild, and me and my family are back to living paycheck to paycheck. With the risks we take, that shouldn’t be happening. And I recently heard that we make less money than at other prisons.

The administration’s answer is to work more overtime and give less time to our family. So, at this point, other than medical and dental and eye care, there are no benefits to working at Hazelton as far as I’m concerned.

How has that shaped your attitude about prisoners?

I keep my head on a swivel. But, still, I don’t feel like I’m there to judge them; they’ve already been judged once. I believe that if you’re willing to do your time and turn your life around, you deserve a second chance. Some prisoners don’t seem to care and see prison as a “home” they’ll never leave or are set on not changing their ways whether they get out or not. But I’ve come to know several who are trying to work toward their release and I respect them.

Every prisoner has family members who are worried about them. Prison may seem like an OK place to the public but it’s not OK.

What is the biggest contributor to the low morale?

A big thing is the understaffing. Staff members risk their lives every day due to short staff and multiple mandates a week, driving home dead tired. As tired as we are, we could leave here and get in an accident or fall asleep at the wheel.

The executive administration we have now doesn’t care about officers. Even though they’re trying to do some extra hiring now, it seems like it’s mostly non-custodial staff. And as we lose more good staff, they just promote people who will do what they want and be their puppets.

For example, lieutenants manipulate the mandate roster to benefit their friends among the SHU* officers all the time. It happens multiple times. Today it caused me to go from 18 on the mandate list to 8 because they gave SHU officers what we call “hookups” so they don’t get mandated. (That means that because they are buddies with the lieutenants, they get easy mandates, like just 30 minutes. Nothing is done about it because the union won’t go after another officer. So, everyone else gets screwed.) There are close to 10 lieutenants, but I respect only four. The rest don’t know what’s going on and don’t care.

It wasn’t always this way. For example, the USP was dangerous before I arrived, but it got better for a while because of the administrative staff at the time. The warden and his executive staff were top notch and staffed us at 130%. But over the last couple of years since he left, I have watched everything slowly decline. So many staff members have left because they knew what was happening. So, they got out.

I hear lots of bad reports from the FCI, but the USP is worse. What do you know about that?

The only time the USP affects the FCI is when the penitentiary SHU is full, but that’s often. Then they have to move the inmates to our SHU and we have to lock everyone down, which happened this summer.

When staffing is really low at the USP, I can also get mandated to work there, and it’s an assignment I don’t want. For the past eight months, the USP has been locked down on and off because staffing is so low and the SHU is full. The inmates are let out just eight cells at a time for 45 minutes and that’s it all day. It affects the programming a lot. There isn’t enough programming for inmates to begin with, and then a lot of the time what we do have gets canceled because they have only one teacher who is also a firearms training instructor. So, most of the time he’s doing that and the programs are canceled.

Inmates act out because of how they are treated and how much they get locked down. A lot of homemade knives are being made and I fear for the officers working up there. It’s a very toxic environment.

I know there’s tension and sometimes warfare between prison gangs. But I hear staff tacitly supports that culture. Do you think that’s true?

There are a lot of gang-related problems at the USP. And it does seem that the prison tries to stir up issues between the gangs. I can understand why the inmates feel this way. They are asked as soon as they arrive what gang they hang with. The prison doesn’t try to help them get away from or out of gang life. It’s hard to keep your mind off of the gang you hang with when all you have to do all day is sit around in the cells because you’re locked down and there aren’t enough programs. So, they fight with each other. When you mix multiple gangs in housing units and don’t try to fix the problems, it’s like mixing chemicals. You get a reaction and it will explode.

USA Today recently published an article about the problems at Hazelton. Did that have any impact?

The USA Today coverage didn’t change anything. Nothing was said other than between officers. It wasn’t enough of a media blast for Hazelton to drop the hammer on what is going on here.

Complex Warden Lovett refuses to hire enough staff and won’t even postpone our annual refresher training until we get enough staffing. Fortunately, the union finally got approval to get some temporary staff from other institutions for 12 weeks. But most of the staff coming in just fall in line with the executive staff and don’t try to help make change.

What about the new FCI warden? I heard she is different.

I agree that the new warden at the FCI is good, probably the only good person on the executive staff. She cares and asks how you’re doing and actually talks to the inmates and explains things to them, not just pushes them to the side. But I also heard a rumor that she’s leaving. I hope that’s not true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. When’s she’s not on site, everyone goes right back to the usual ways of doing things—off the books. In fact, her car was just vandalized in the parking lot. People don’t like the changes she’s trying to make. One person won’t be able to change this place.

What do you think needs to be done to improve Hazelton?

To turn Hazelton around, it would take some big changes. We need better leadership that cares about how both inmates and staff are treated.

The quality of staff is also an issue. There are some amazing staff members. But right now, the bad outweigh the good. One good person has to battle four or five bad ones, and it wears you down. Eventually the good people give up. Unless you have friends in the right places, there’s no motivation to improve. If you’re not liked, you get treated like garbage.

Management needs to fire problem staff members rather than place them on investigation status for two years or more. And then promote officers who are qualified, rather than those who abuse their power due to buddies higher up.

I also don’t think we will ever get enough staff to be able to run at 100%. Honestly, I think the central office should transfer out inmates so the population fits the number of staff we have. Maybe even close down the USP. It’s that bad.

Will that happen? Probably not. So, for the foreseeable future, it will stay just one big, toxic, dumpster fire, blazing out of control.

*SHU—special housing unit, also called the hole. Where prisoners are sent for investigation or discipline, and also while they are waiting to be transferred.