Cumberland Times-News

March 20, 2013

Union plans prison picket

A union representing 400

Michael A. Sawyers
Cumberland Times-News

— HAZELTON, W.Va. — A union representing 400 guards at the federal prison near Hazelton will conduct an informational picket Thursday to bring public awareness to unsafe working conditions.

The gathering will take place from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Pine Run Service Center alongside Interstate 68 at Exit 29, Hazelton Road.

The prison sits within one mile of the Maryland state line. Many of the guards live in Garrett, Allegany and Mineral counties, according to Robert Reckart, treasurer for Local 420, American Federation of Government Employees.

“The Bureau of Prisons has been on a path of escalating violence for several years,” Richard Heldreth, Local 420 vice president, wrote in an email to the Times-News.

Heldreth said that route has been created by inmate overcrowding and cost cutting that has resulted in understaffing.

The sequester — automatic budget cuts built into the federal governing system — has worsened the problem, according to Reckart.

Heldreth addressed that matter in his email.

“With the recent sequester, all of our staff at Hazelton have received furlough notices advising us that we may be furloughed up to 14 days this fiscal year, which ends in September,” he said.

A reduced staff will not be able to respond to emergencies, Heldreth said.

“Emergencies are common at Hazelton. Since Jan. 1 of this year there have been almost 80 documented violent incidents at Hazelton. The institution is overcrowded, with inmates assigned to live in areas that were not designed for this purpose, such as the receiving area and visitation rooms.”

Hazelton is a high security facility housing about 1,500 inmates, including some women.

Union officials said they hope to avoid the murder of correctional officers such as took place at federal facilities in Pennsylvania and California.

“Hazelton houses some of America's most ruthless and violent offenders,” wrote Gerald L. Cook, Local 420 secretary, in an email to the Times-News. “In our short history, we have had an inmate murdered, thousands of assaults of inmates on inmates, and inmates attacking staff which have resulted in serious injuries.”

The prison opened in 2004 and added a secure facility for female inmates in 2006.

Cook said it is possible paid vacation for guards is in jeopardy.

“We are outnumbered by as many as 130 to 1 at various times of our work day and contrary to belief our only defense is our radio, keys and hopefully a fellow brother or sister who can come to our aid if needed.  Every day we put our lives on the line,” said Cook.

Contact Michael A. Sawyers at msawyers@times-news.com.