Our Voices > Dispatches from Inside

FCI Hazelton: Called ‘Misery Mountain’ for a Reason

Sep 5, 2022

By Pam Bailey

More Than Our Crimes has compiled stories from throughout the federal Bureau of Prisons to bring to life the neglect and abuse that are rife throughout the gulag of 122 institutions. One of the prisons that generates the most outspoken protest — an act of bravery when officers are known for retaliation — is FCI Hazelton, a medium-security facility in rural West Virginia. Here are some of the residents’ stories. And if you are moved to take action on their behalf, we offer some suggestions at the end.

Jeffrey B. Cohen: medical horrors in ‘the hole’

On January 19, 2018, an X-ray of my back was performed. The results showed I suffered from “multilevel degenerative and spondylotic changes most prominently at the L3-4, L4-5 and L5-S1 levels.” Medical staff were informed of my substantial pain. In the summer of 2019, I was thrown in the SHU [Special Housing Unit, or “hole”] in retaliation for filing a civil action against the prison. I was deprived of a mattress for two months and forced to sleep on a steel slab, which exacerbated my back pain. I was confined to the SHU for 190 days, without the required periodic reviews. My muscles atrophied, my blood pressure dramatically increased, and I developed severe anxiety, including nightmares and panic attacks.

Meanwhile, I was unable to access the law library so I could further process my civil action and much of my personal property was destroyed.

Following the stay in the Hazelton SHU, I was transferred to FCI Gilmer (also in West Virginia), where my medical neglect continues. 

Cedric Franklin: festering wounds

I suffer from fluid build-up in my left leg due to poor circulation caused by a gunshot wound I received in 2005. The bullet hit the main artery and I’ve needed several surgeries throughout the years. I’ve always had pain and swelling.  

I arrived at FCI Hazelton in May 2021. My problems started when fluid began draining from a sore in my leg. I reported this to Health Services, and they cleaned and placed a bandaid on it.  But after a few days, it started smelling bad and turned green, blue and yellow. I reported this to Health Services and they examined and cultured it. The results revealed two serious types of infection. 

I developed two big craters in my leg, and was given nine different antibiotics. Finally, after four months, I was sent to the hospital. A doctor there told Health Services I needed surgery. However, I wasn’t brought back to the hospital for the operation.

The sores continued to get worse. I was taken back to the doctor in November. He examined me and ran tests, and again said I needed to return. But they didn’t take me. The sores continued to get worse, smelling awful and draining profusely. On January 7 (2022), I was rushed to Ruby Memorial Hospital. I was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with COVID as well. I was put on IVs for the infection and the staff wanted to keep me for six weeks. However, the FCI then lost its contract with the hospital and on January 22, I was returned to the prison, this time in quarantine and in an unclean cell for four days. A doctor came to see me, but he didn’t do anything because he had no gloves.  

After four days, I was returned to a regular housing unit, given gauze and tape, and forced to clean my wound myself. I wasn’t even given saline solution.  The facility then went into lockdown and my leg started to get bad again because I could only take two five-minute showers per week. I informed the COs (correctional officers) and RNs daily that my leg was getting worse and I needed medical help. A week later, on Feb. 1, a nurse took me out and removed the dressing. She told the CO he had to take me to Health Services immediately, that my leg wound was very, very bad. Finally, I was taken by ambulance to the nearest emergency room. I was told nothing was wrong and was sent back to prison. But a week later, the test results came back and showed I had MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant infection). The doctor doesn’t want to do anything until I am checked for cancer, so I’m back on antibiotics in the meantime. Meanwhile, I have to shower in the same stalls with everyone else, and by evening, the showers are dirty — and I mean dirty.  

As a result, I have been confined to a wheelchair for close to a year and the infection is growing more painful every day.  

[His compassionate relief case is currently pending.] 

Ron Curtis Hill: persecution for not being able to urinate on demand

I have paruresis, a psychological impairment also known as shy bladder syndrome (an inability to urinate in the real or imaginary presence of others). Because of this, I was unable to provide a urine sample for a drug test. As punishment, I was sent to the SHU for six weeks and was placed on a “hot list” mandating me to be tested every month. The crazy thing is, a year ago, I had reached out to the psychology department and asked for help with this issue. It had taken me a while to work up the courage to talk about it, since I was embarrassed and felt awkward. Psychology just said there was nothing they could do to help me. 

After my stay in the SHU, I contacted both Medical and Psychology asking for help again. Once again, nothing. I filed a grievance, trying to get my incident report removed and force Psychology and Medical to help. My grievance was denied and my appeals were held up in the mail, so they arrived after the filing deadlines and were declared “time-barred.” 

I have been in contact with the International Paruresis Association, which attempted to contact the prison on my behalf, asking that I be allowed the use of a catheter for drug tests or be given privacy while I urinate. However, they also got nowhere. 

I didn’t know what to do, and I contemplated slitting my writs the next time I was called for a drug test, just so they would take me seriously. I was desperate and didn’t know who to reach out to. Paruresis affects 7% of people in the United States, and I know of a few other guys in here who have the same challenge. 

Fortunately, I found another prisoner who has a supply of catheters who shares them, so now I can provide a urine sample for the monthly drug test. I have done this 14 times now and have 10 more to go until I am off the hot list.

Something needs to happen in the BOP so that prisoners are not subjected to persecution like this. I plan on trying to make a difference for people like me when I am released in 19 months. 

Lavin Matthews: torturous temperatures

When I contracted COVID-19, I had about nine symptoms. I couldn’t breathe easily but wasn’t given any oxygen. If not for the help of a nurse practitioner named Mrs. Sorrell, who taught me breathing techniques, I believe I wouldn’t be alive today. The staff only checked on us at count time. The nurses made two rounds: once in the morning and once at night to take vitals. I passed out two times and the advice was to “drink water.” Meanwhile, 80-85% of staff refused to mask up. 

The winter was terrible up on this mountain, and at times the temperature outside was near freezing. Yet the approximately 100 diabetics in here (including me) were forced to stand outside in line to get insulin and have our blood sugar levels checked, which takes one and a half hours every morning and afternoon. [Medical staff says the officers won’t allow them to administer the insulin inside.] There were days when I couldn’t even prick my finger because my hands were frozen. When that happened, the medical staff marked it down that I refused! When they finally let us in the vestibule to inject ourselves (only one person is allowed in at a time), the blood monitor was so cold the battery stopped working. So I sucked on my finger to try to heat it up. 

One of the men was coughing up blood, and the unit officer just said, “If he dies, he dies.” The guy next to me was about to assault the officer, but I stopped him. It would’ve put the prison on lockdown for God knows how long and the actions of staff toward inmates would’ve escalated beyond belief. 

On top of that, when we are standing in the pill line, there’s usually at least one medical staff member or compound officer who’s smoking a cigarette. These people are supposed to be here to help us get well and they are smoking tobacco, exposing us to secondhand smoke! Yes, smoking is banned in federal prison, but that doesn’t stop these officers from doing what they want. As I was told (verbatim): “This isn’t the FBOP (federal Bureau of Prisons). This is FCI Hazelton.” (In other words, we do what we want here.) 

The level of respect staff has for us is nonexistent. We’re treated like road kill or something you may have stepped on.

Joseph Johnson: unsteady gait

In July 2015, I tore a tendon in my knee on the basketball court. I went to Health Services and they took an x-ray, then gave me some ibuprofen and told me to keep my knee up on a chair. That was that. I went back later because my knee was swelling, causing me pain on the level of a 5 on a scale of 10. I was having problems bending it and going up stairs.

It took about five to six months before I finally got an MRI (in September 2016, 15 months after the injury). A tendon was in fact torn and it took another six to seven months (September 2017)  to get surgery, which came with no rehab or even a knee brace. All they did was give me instructions for leg stretches that I had trouble doing by myself. Now, nearly five years later, I have yet to be given anything for the swelling that occurs whenever I work out, and I have gained 22 pounds due to the restrictions in my movement. Plus, I’ve developed an unbalanced stance. I have gradually gained some of my strength back in my knee, but on my own.

Justin Johnson: collective punishment

Too many times, we are locked down for isolated incidents that don’t affect the safety of the institution. For example, during the week of Thanksgiving, a CO entered a cell where guys who practice the Santeria religion were praying, and said, “Stop all this heebaa jeba bullshit!” The guys were using the cell to pray because the chapel was closed. The CO broke up the religious ceremony and everyone left. 

Within the next 30 minutes, the CO re-entered the room and searched the cell. The guy whose cell it was had an altar for Santeria set up. There was some palm oil inside an empty pill bottle along with other religious items. The CO reached for the bottle, and the guy was startled, reaching for it to prevent the guard from touching anything on the altar. (By the way, having an altar is not against the rules.) Their hands touched, and the guard called a code [signaling a disruptive prisoner]. The inmate was sent to the SHU for assault. The entire institution was then placed on lockdown for a week. The entire institution!! This happened on the Monday before Thanksgiving. We got off lockdown the following Monday. My family traveled here to visit me for the holiday and were told we were locked down. I had asked if I could at least contact my family to prevent them from coming during the lockdown and they wouldn’t let me. 

Collective punishment is used in other ways too. Often, an entire unit is denied access to the computers due to an action of one individual. For example, if a terminal’s cord is cut, we’ll all be denied access for 30 days. Remember, the computer is essential to keep in contact with my kids and my lawyer. It’s an integral part of my day.

Collective punishment doesn’t work because it creates bigger problems. Guys get agitated, tension rises. And then you’ve got a real situation that could have been avoided. 

James Leach: retaliation for grieving

The important thing to know is my history of medical problems: At the age of 6, I developed ADHD. I climbed up on a garage roof and my mother yelled at me to get down. So, I ran to the back of the roof, spun and took off as fast as I could. I jumped head first off the roof. I blew out my collar bone and compressed my spine. As a result, I have degenerative disk disease as well as nerve damage. I was told later in life it would get bad, and it has. I have a rather unusual tolerance for pain, so if I am feeling pain, I know it’s bad. In addition to pain meds, I take two different heart pills and use an inhaler. 

On March 24, my unit was run outside into the yard by staff. All 127 inmates were secured there while staff searched the unit for an unknown reason. Hours later, we were allowed to come back and the cells looked as though a tornado had blown through. Legal folders full of inmates’ cases were dumped onto the floor and tossed everywhere. Family photos were strewn about the cells as if they were trash. Medical personnel assisted with the search and took all inmates’ medications. They are useful “weapons,” so COs can retaliate against inmates who stand up for their rights through the grievance process. 

I asked at the pill-line window if they would issue me a dose until I got my medications back. They refused. I am on medication for blood pressure, chronic back pain and asthma. (I also have anxiety that they refuse to treat due to the cost of the medication. When I have an anxiety attack, I have to hide in my cell because they will accuse me of being on drugs and lock me in the SHU.)

Some people got their medication back right away. Others did not, including me. I don’t think the medical team is happy with me because I have started filing grievances about their neglect.

My family has been trying for the last four or five weeks to contact someone concerning my medical issues and the blatant disregard of my pain. I’ve been waiting 10 years for an MRI. I was approved to go, but then was denied because they didn’t want to take me on the trip. To cover for it, one of the medical personnel tried to get me to sign a refusal form. I told him I would never do that…I need this MRI. A specialist who came here told me I will wake up paralyzed one day due to my back being so bad. But I can’t go to a neurologist or get surgery without the MRI.

Meanwhile, we just had a guy whose appendix burst. Medical kept sending him back to the housing unit, telling him he was just “backed up.” They gave him an enema and wanted to send him back to the unit; he refused to leave. Finally, they sent him out to the hospital. The surgeon said it was the worst case he had seen.

We haven’t been offered any quality programming here in such a long time. What they call programming is just a workbook in which you read about, say, a baseball player and then answer questions. All it really is is basic reading comprehension. They don’t give us anything in the way of skills we can take to the street. Even when we get a job in facilities (plumbing, HVAC, etc.) most of the time they just tell us sit at a table and watch TV. That’s why I quit working there. I need something to do! Yet the prison is getting money for programming. We haven’t even been able to use the inside rec room for a very long time. That’s where we can do hobby crafts, like leather working, painting, musical instruments and inside basketball. What are we supposed to do with our time? Yet they want it to be peaceful.

Meanwhile, they’ve essentially shut down visits. And when they did allow them, they only permitted about 10 people from a unit. As for books, they keep returning them; it doesn’t matter where they come from. My girlfriend ordered some cookbooks for me and the mailroom returned them. She tried to order different books and they were returned too. So, I told her not to send any more. Only maybe five books have made it into my unit in the last three months. 

When we file grievances, the forms are thrown into the trash by the counselor. When I’ve filed grievances on medical issues in the past, the unit manager yelled at me as if I had done something personal against her. They have retaliated against me for filing grievances and thrown away pretty much all of my property. My wedding ring went missing when I was sent to the SHU. Staff takes inmates’ property all the time when they go to the SHU: watches, rings, food, etc. 

When people from the regional office come here, we are prevented from speaking to them. What is it going to take for us to get the ear of someone who will listen and do something about it? 

Calvin Sumler: lack of legal access

We are constantly locked down for what others do. If a person is caught without his mask on, the entire unit of 120-128 people gets locked down. (Yet the officer working the block doesn’t wear his or her mask.) If two individuals in our unit, or even another unit, get into a fight, everyone gets locked down indefinitely. Earlier this year, we were all placed into a nationwide lockdown for an altercation that happened in Beaumont, Texas! We are constantly punished for others’ actions. This causes a lot of resentment: Incarcerated persons have motions in the courts, with deadlines that must be met by law. Yet no provisions are made to give us access to the law library while we are locked down.

Antonio Oesby: racial harassment

The officers in my unit hung a dead black crow on top of the shed that sits in the center of the compound, as if to send a message to us Black men. Clearly, the administration had no problems with it, because it remained hanging there for several days…only to be taken down when it began to stink and maggots began to crawl out. 

Arthur Edward Williamson Jr.: broken family connections

This prison is doing whatever it can to reduce our contact with the outside world. The latest move is to limit both incoming and outgoing emails to 350 a month. My belief is that they’re doing this because they don’t have the staff to monitor all the communication, so they punish us. At this institution, even legal mail is opened, claiming it doesn’t conform with their policy.  They’ve even tampered with mail from judges’ chambers and congressmen. 

And now they’re depriving us of time in the yard.  Supposedly a drone dropped contraband into the yard, so we don’t get any outside recreation. But drones are nothing new to these places. The last two facilities I was in, FCIs Coleman and Manchester, both had that problem and it’s easy to fix without depriving prisoners of essential time outside: Just walk the yard prior to allowing prisoners to go outside and pick up any contraband. 

What I really need is to be closer to my family. My federal sentence began on June 15, 2001 and I long to be transferred so I can visit more with my family members.  Here, the staff are too disrespectful toward our visitors.  They have harassed me many times for filing grievances against one of them, and visitors are often treated the same. Many times, on the Friday before a scheduled visit, staff announce that it’s been cancelled, knowing your family members have travelled hundreds of miles to see you.

FCI Hazelton is more than a 10-hour drive from my family in Covington, Georgia. I thought the First Step Act would make it possible for me to be closer to home in my old age. After all, it calls for placing prisoners within 500 driving miles of their families. However, there is a big loophole: “unless security designation, programming, health care needs or bed space limits prevent it.” And FCI Hazelton exploits it to the max.

Take action!

  • Tweet to the BOP Reform Caucus, Sens. Ossuf and Braun of the Senate Prison Policy Working Group, MetroNews and the State Journal to take a special look at FCI Hazelton.
  • Write to these West Virginia congressional offices and ask them to investigate conditions at FCI Hazelton: Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. David McKinley.
  • Tweet to the BOP Reform Caucus, Sens. Ossuf and Braun of the Senate Prison Policy Working Group, MetroNews and the State Journal to take a special look at FCI Hazelton.
  • Write to these West Virginia congressional offices and ask them to investigate conditions at FCI Hazelton:
    • Sen. Joe Manchin (attention Chris Sharer, chris_sharer@manchin.senate.gov)
    • Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (Sophie Maeter, sophie_maeter@capito.senate.gov)
    • Rep. David McKinley (Richard Kisielowski, richard.kisielowski@mail.house.gov)

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