Last month, USA Today published an article that raised the alarm about working conditions at the federal Hazelton prison complex in West Virginia. (The complex includes a high-security penitentiary [USP], a medium-security prison [FCI], a low-security camp and a women’s prison.) “What the facility desperately needs,” the union president told the newspaper, “is more officers and rest for the weary.”
In other words, the main problem at Hazelton is a lack of correctional officers. No point of view from the prisoners or their families was sought. So, I went back to my network members at the Hazelton complex (I had interviewed men at the FCI once before) and asked for their perspectives. Perhaps surprisingly, what they told me mirrored much of what I heard from one of the FCI correctional officers. I share their insights below.
[Note that the individuals quoted below are from the medium-security FCI unless otherwise highlighted.]
James L.: I’ve been here since 2015, and this place has only gotten worse since then. Yes, they are short-handed, but that’s due to the way the place is run. Focusing only on the low staffing takes away from everything that’s going on here! People also need to look at the substandard medical care…the horrible, insufficient food…the absence of real programming and rehabilitation…the abusive way we are treated. And that’s because they are not being held accountable.
The administration is also really good at covering their asses. If an officer does something, they just send him to the [high-security] pen or the women’s prison to work, and bring someone else here. Nothing changes. The good ol’ boys are riding this piggy bank till the wheels fall off.
Terrence: I can see why no one wants to work here. Staff members mimic what the rest do no matter how wrong it may be. Another problem is that many of them seem to be related to or dating someone here. So, there’s an incentive to cover up wrongdoing.
If you file grievances against staff, they make sure you understand who has the upper hand. When I was denied the right to shop in the commissary and my mail was so badly copied it wasn’t legible, I filed on them. But the staff just threw [the forms] away.
James H.: This place is called Misery Mountain for a reason. Just in 2022, there were six deaths from suicide or overdoses. Other than killing yourself, there are only two ways to get out of Hazelton: Be accepted into a program offered at another prison, or “check in.” That means refusing to be on the compound and voluntarily going into the SHU [special housing unit, or “hole”]. Usually, people do that when they steal, or run up debts they can’t pay, and need protective custody. But in this case, I’ll be straight-up honest with you: People are refusing to be on the compound because it’s about the only way to get transferred out. That’s why the SHU is always so full.
Travis: I know the USP has a worse reputation, but the FCI is a lot the same because they use the same officers. The captain tells us we aren’t humans. And the associate warden and the food service administrator are openly vocal about how much they hate inmates. Yes, the new warden is better. At least when she’s on site we get fed properly. But when she leaves, it goes right back to the way it was before she started working here. The other staff act like they are on her team, but in reality, they are working against her.
Eddie: Sure, since COVID came, most prisons are understaffed. But in my opinion, that’s not what’s making this place dangerous. Staff make it dangerous, in part because they introduce most of the contraband [drugs], not prisoners.
Kamal: Officers make thousands of dollars each week by bringing in drugs, and the inmates fight over [who gets to make] the sales. Meanwhile, complaints of rape and sexual harassment go unchecked. Plus, the BOP concentrates the most high-risk inmates in one place. What do you think is going to take place, especially when the guards introduce drugs?
Calvin: What’s the solution? The union says it’s all understaffing. So, since they can’t seem to hire enough staff to run the prison properly, close it. Or start recommending that the courts grant more compassionate release motions, especially for prisoners who have served over 20 years. [Surprisingly, this is also the conclusion of the anonymous correctional officer. And it seems to be the Bureau of Prisons’ mode of operations: When institutions or programs get too bad, it simply closes them.]
Perpetual lockdowns, when all prisoners in an entire unit or facility are confined to their cells, is a constant complaint at both the medium- and high-security Hazelton facilities. They are particularly lengthy at the USP, as the account below reflects:
Mark: It feels like we’ve been locked down most of the time for the past four years I’ve been here. We were just locked down for over two weeks, for no apparent reason. When anything at all happens, they lock down, acting and talking tough. I’m in a programming unit, but I can’t program because of this. They don’t have to lock us all down when there’s a problem with one or two people, or in one part of the prison. It must be the easiest way to get their paychecks.
To raise this concern, I contacted Sen. Joseph Manchin’s office, since the Hazelton complex is in his state. Since most of the stories I shared were from the FCI (residents at the USP are almost always locked down and thus I don’t hear from them as often), the BOP addressed only this facility in its response to Manchin: “FCI Hazelton reports it had one official lockdown during 2022, which began on October 27, 2022, and ended on December 1, 2022. Per BOP Congressional Affairs, this was due to the Special Housing Unit being full [in part due to numerous inmates requesting protective custody], limited transfers, and continuing modified movement due to COVID-19.”
The reason why so many people at Hazelton “check in” to protective custody is explained above. They want to get out of Hazelton! Below, our network members respond to the BOP’s attempt to downplay the number of lockdowns.
Jesse: They lied [to Manchin]. They’re playing games by using that word “official.” To get around this, the query must be direct, asking for “any and all lockdowns at any time.” Here’s my own tally of both full and partial lockdowns in my unit, which I started in May and kept until early November:
5/20 half day
5/28 (2 p.m.)-5/31 (9:30 a.m.)
6/11 (3 p.m.)-6/21
8/17 (let out late morning)
8/18 (let out late morning)
8/24 (until sometime after 4 p.m.)
9/6 (let out late morning)
9/13 (locked down all morning)
9/15-10/3 (What a rough time! For the first four days, breakfast didn’t come until noon and lunch and supper came together at 8 p.m. We were allowed maybe three showers the whole time.)
11/9-14, affecting four units
Travis: I would respond to that statement from the BOP by saying this: “Someone needs to review the cameras so they can see what actually takes place in this prison and stop taking the word of people who have repeatedly proven to be dishonest.” I estimate we’re locked down at least partially about 50% of the time. Approximately 25 of those times, we were told it was because the fence wasn’t working. But a few of the compound officers told me that’s a lie. For example, this past Sunday that’s what they said, but I heard the real reason is that the lieutenants and some of the officers were upset about how much freedom the new warden is giving us.
And then on the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, the reason they gave us for locking down was “Staff Appreciation Day.” Yet I saw several officers standing around near Medical doing nothing. If they were still in the unit, then what’s the point of locking us down? Plus, all of the inmate kitchen people work during lockdowns, so that proves they aren’t necessary. In my 10 years of living in the federal prison system, I’ve never spent this much time locked down.
Eddie: It got harder to track all these lockdowns, though, when the staff got smart and stopped issuing notices, because we were saving them.
James L.: The staff shortage is real, but I question if it’s really the cause of our lockdowns. They just sent 26 to 30 officers out for their annual “refresher” testing. They could have done that just as easily on the computer.
Dustin: The SHU is full all the time and when it is, they lock us down. If they are short on staff, and that’s all the time, they lock us down. They also call a lockdown when they don’t have enough people to staff sick call: They’ll lock us down until 9:30 or 10 so they have an excuse not to offer appointments.
Antonio: Another reason why they put us on lock down is a visit from regional headquarters. They don’t want us talking to them. As soon as they leave, of course, we’ll be out. It’s almost humorous.
Ron: We were locked in again this morning, the third time this week, for being “short staffed.” What they’ve been doing is waiting until around 10:30 in the morning to let us out; that’s an extra four hours locked in our cells. The medical staff came around and did our lab tests and TB shots through the food slot in our doors! Can you imagine drawing blood and passing urine cups through the slot we’re fed through? How sanitary is that?
Nicole (women’s prison): My unit just got off a five-day lockdown because of fights among the women. And yes, there were three fights on the unit in a week. But two of them involved cellmates who were already locked in! The administration is basically saying we need to police each other because otherwise the whole unit will be held accountable.
But there are alternatives to collective punishment. At two of the other prisons I’ve been in, they just took the two or however many women who were fighting to the SHU. There is no reason why an entire unit has to be locked down because two people decided to fight.
An issue closely related to lockdowns is the practice of “shaking down” the cells, thoroughly searching and ransacking them, sometimes taking or destroying personal property.
James L.: They just had a shakedown in unit M-1 and they took the food we bought from the canteen. They get mad when they have to pack our property when we go to the SHU, so they “lose” it.
Why do they do it? A lot of them bring personal issues to work, or take things too personally. If a staff member can’t find a broom, for example, they go from cell to cell, taking whatever they want and stashing it in a trash bag. Sometimes they say your cell isn’t clean enough or they’re upset when you don’t make it to your door as fast as they want when they’re doing a count or locking down. .
Travis: On Jan. 12, all four units of M-Block were evacuated for what we call a retaliatory shakedown. That’s not just a search; it’s a form of punishment for some perceived wrong. It’s easy to discern the difference because in a simple search, our property isn’t damaged deliberately. In this shakedown, it was. We were only allowed to keep whatever property could fit in our lockers. Depending on how long inmates have been in prison, they can have a lot of family photographs, clothing and legal material—too much to fit in their lockers.
This is not the kind of treatment that helps an inmate go back to freedom and be a productive member of society. Being picked on like this is what creates the spark of anger that causes an inmate to become violent. If you only have a handful of photographs of your dead grandmother and no family to send them to for safekeeping, then they become your most protected possessions. When a cop comes into your cell, dumps all of your photographs on the floor and squirts your sunblock all over them, well, what do you expect?
I had this done to me three weeks ago for no discernible reason. I’m not sure what these people hope to accomplish by doing that, but you could say they’re doing their part to make sure we stay criminals. It’s like they want to provoke violence so they can say to the BOP director, “I told you these people are animals.”