Prison union rallies in Morgantown to call attention to hiring procedures, dangerously low staffing levels

BRUCETON MILLS, W.Va. Members of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 420, representing workers at Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) Hazelton, rallied in Morgantown Friday, calling for changes to the hiring process and to bring attention to low staffing levels.

AFGE Local 420 President Justin Tarovisky said FCC Hazelton is short 80 officers, and the situation is unsafe for inmates, staff, and the communities that surround the facility.

“We need change! Not only for us and the safety and security of that prison, but for the outlying cities and counties in this area that we provide such a great service to the American public,” Tarovisky said. “These officers and this staff are some of the best in the country.”

Joe Rojas, a 29-year-old employee of the Bureau of Prisons, Southeast Regional Vice President of the Council of Prison Locals, and current federal employee at FCC Coleman in central Florida, traveled to Morgantown for the Friday informational picket. According to Rojas, FCC Coleman is one of the largest institutions in the country, and the problems are the same.

“This is why I’m here, because I know what they’re going through,” Rojas said. “What’s happening in Hazelton, what’s happening in Coleman is happening at Hazelton, and what’s happening at Hazelton is happening in California, Thompson, and all of our prisons—it’s a disgrace.”

Tarovisky said recently, 60 people applied for positions during a hiring fair, but none were brought back for additional interviews after the information was reviewed in the Bureau of Prisons office in Grand Prairie, Texas.

“Over 60 qualified applicants applied to work at Hazelton; however, the Grand Prairie, Texas administration, and managers out there have disqualified them for clerical errors in their resumes,” Tarovisky said.

Staffing levels are so low that overtime is no longer optional; it’s mandated for up to four days each week. Tarovisky said officers are told regularly not to leave the prison when their shift starts.

“We had an office worker just two weeks ago get into a car accident because he couldn’t see straight leaving after he was mandated four to five days a week,” Tarovisky said. “It has become a plague that is affecting our institution, and we are calling for change for Grand Prairie and this director to change the hiring requirements.”

There were three murders at FCC Hazelton in 2018 including notorious criminal Whitey Bulger. That’s when a new warden was hired, Bryan Antonelli. Antonelli was brought in and about 120 officers were hired, some using the Veterans Recruitment Appointment (VRA) process that Tarovisky said is no longer being used.

“We were telling you our staffing was low and bad things were going to happen, and what happened? Three homicides and Whitey Bulger,” Tarovisky said. “Again, because of staffing. It happened in Coleman, Florida, just two months ago with the gymnast Mr. Nassar, and he almost died.”

Lowering hiring standards is an option Tarovisky said other professional agencies are doing successfully, and the Bureau of Prisons should as well.

“Because it’s hard to fill positions, they dropped their requirements for officers to get hired for the Pennsylvania State Police,” Tarovisky said. “I have many friends that work for the Pennsylvania State Police, but now you don’t have to have educational requirements, and our requirements are getting worse.”

Rojas said, in addition to changes in hiring practices, pay for correctional officers should be reviewed. When he started 29 years ago, it was one of the highest-paying jobs, but the pay and benefits have eroded over his years of service.

“It’s easy to say there’s a war on crime and lock these guys up, but somebody has to watch these inmates, and it’s got to be us,” Rojas said. “If you don’t give us the manpower to watch these inmates, there’s going to be an uprising.”