Just days before former Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger was brutally beaten to death at a high-security federal prison in West Virginia this week, politicians and even inmates themselves were sounding a warning:
There is far too much violence there.
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Two other inmates were stabbed to death in fights with fellow inmates this year at US Penitentiary Hazelton -- one in April, and the most recent on September 17.
Those deaths prompted members of Congress to send at least two letters to Justice Department officials in October -- days before Bulger even arrived at Hazelton -- raising concerns about conditions at the facility and whether federal prisons like it were properly or adequately staffed.
And a watchdog group that visited Hazelton inmates in early October says the killings only hint at the violence there. Inmates will commonly put padlocks from foot lockers into socks and swing "at the head or body of another individual," the Washington-based Corrections Information Council reported in October, citing several Hazelton inmates.
With the death of Bulger, whose killing came one day after he was transferred there from another prison, three inmates have now been killed there in seven months. Few details have been released and it's not clear whether a fuller prison staff would have made a difference.
But a union representing prison workers says the violence should highlight what it says are two major staffing issues: Dozens of authorized correctional officers' positions are vacant at the Hazelton prison complex, and, like at other federal prisons, staff such as maintenance workers and nurses are stepping in as guards when insufficient numbers of regular correctional officers are available.
"Federal prisons across the country are suffering from severe understaffing, and the situation is perhaps no more dire than at Hazelton," J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), said after Bulger's death.
'This kind of stuff happens on the regular'
The first two deaths at Hazelton led to October's congressional and watchdog inquiries.
Hazelton inmates Ian Thorne and Demario Porter were killed in fights with fellow inmates in April and September, respectively, DC congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz last month.
Thorne and Porter had been DC residents, and their deaths caught the attention of the DC Corrections Information Council, which monitors facilities where district residents are incarcerated. Felons convicted in the District of Columbia are sent to federal prisons.
The council said it visited USP Hazelton on October 3 and interviewed 58 DC residents incarcerated there. Some of them said physical assaults happened at least once a day, and one recalled four stabbings there between February and August, the council said in a report to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
"This kind of stuff happens on the regular," the report quotes the unnamed inmate as saying.
According to data from the local AFGE chapter that represents Hazelton staff, violent incidents happen there frequently, if not daily. More than 130 violent incidents -- most of them fights between inmates -- were recorded this year through October 30, AFGE Local 420 Executive Vice President Justin Tarovisky said.
Inmates also told the council of assaults from staff, including that workers in the prison's Special Housing Unit "beat, punch, kick, choke and stomp (them) where they know it won't show."
Holmes Norton asked Horowitz in her letter to investigate the operations at Hazelton, citing reports of abuse in the council's report, as well as the two fatal inmate fights.
The BOP didn't immediately respond Saturday to CNN's questions about the council's report.
Tarovisky said the Bureau of Prisons takes accusations of abuse seriously, and that since he's been the local union's executive vice president, he's never known such allegations to have been true.
"My staff do not in any way beat" prisoners, said Tarovisky, who also is a senior officer specialist at Hazelton. "That's not going on."
Days before Bulger's death, lawmakers alleged prison understaffing
The deaths of Thorne and Porter also caught the attention of West Virginia's US senators, Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, and three other lawmakers, who wrote on October 25 -- five days before Bulger died -- that they were concerned about the Bureau of Prisons' "failure to follow clear congressional directives to hire more full-time correctional officers."
In the letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the lawmakers said the April and September deaths at Hazelton were unacceptable.
They also wrote that Congress gave the BOP "additional funds to support additional correctional officers for each housing unit at high security institutions" since 2016.
The AFGE union says many prisons nationwide are understaffed, including those at Federal Correction Complex Hazelton, which includes the high-security USP Hazelton as well as three other facilities: The medium-security Federal Correctional Institution Hazelton; a women's prison; and a minimum-security satellite prison camp.
The complex has 403 correctional officers, but a further 42 officer positions are vacant, Tarovisky, the local union official, said.
The Hazelton prisons badly need those 42 positions filled, Tarovisky said. Shortages stress the staff's ability to, among other things, find contraband, he said.
"With another 42 officers, we might have found the weapons" that were used in the April and September killings, he said.
"In my opinion, some things could have been averted" with full staffing, Tarovisky said, referring to violence at the complex.
The BOP told CNN on Friday that it eliminated several thousand vacant, previously authorized bureau positions nationwide this year while trying to cut costs in line with the Justice Department's congressionally approved budget plan.
The bureau's count of vacant correctional officer positions at FCC Hazelton, 36, was lower than the union's. The bureau said it projects 21 of those 36 positions will be filled, though it did not say when.
"Regarding the recent incidence of violence at FCC Hazelton, the BOP has sent a team of subject-matter experts to the complex to assess operational activities and correctional security practices and measures to determine any relevant facts that may have contributed to the incident," a BOP representative said Friday. "The team will make recommendations to the BOP's senior leadership to assist in mitigating any identified risks."
Teachers, accountants filling in as guards
The lawmakers' letter also expressed concern about prisons' "overreliance on augmentation," a term that describes the bureau's practice of using prison staff such as teachers and cooks for fill-in guard duty.
The legislators asked Sessions to update them on how the BOP was reducing the practice.
Augmentation happens every weekday at FCC Hazelton, Tarovisky said. On Tuesday, the complex had five to 10 staff members filling in as correctional officers, Tarovisky said.
The BOP says all federal prison staff are law enforcement officers and are considered correctional workers first, even if their primary job there is something else.
All staff members are told upon being hired that they're expected to perform law enforcement duties; they're given the same amount of initial and continuing training as law enforcement officers; and they're paid accordingly, the bureau says.
But in their letter to Sessions, the lawmakers wrote that a Senate report accompanying the 2018 appropriations law included directions to the BOP "to curtail its overreliance on augmentation and instead hire full-time correctional staff before continuing to augment existing staff."
"For years now, we've had to augment staff like secretaries, teachers, accountants, and food service workers as correctional officers and critical responders to violent incidents," Eric Young, president of the AFGE's Council of Prison Locals, said Tuesday. "This thinly veiled attempt to wallpaper over the very real danger short-staffing causes has already led to attacks on correctional officers and inmates, escape attempts and even murder."
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