James "Whitey" Bulger, shown in this 2011 booking photo, was found dead Tuesday at U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton in Bruceton Mills, W.Va. (U.S. Marshals Service/AP)
Columnist

Murder is nothing new at U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton.

With Tuesday’s gruesome beating death of James “Whitey” Bulger, the Bruceton Mills, W.Va., facility is now notorious as the location of a vicious mobster’s killing.

But it’s not just this latest attack that gives lie to the facility’s high-security designation. There were two other inmate homicides, both stabbings, in Hazelton this year. The victims were prisoners from Washington, D.C.

Among correctional officers, Hazelton has a reputation as one of the most dangerous institutions in the federal system. “McCreary [in Pine Knot, Ky.] and Hazelton are the two worse prisons in BOP [Bureau of Prisons],” said Eric Young, president of the Council of Prison Locals within the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). “All our penitentiaries are, but these two are the most dangerous.”

BOP declined to address the spate of killings at Hazelton, but said, “overall, the rate of serious inmate-on-inmate assaults nationwide has declined.”

Even before Bulger was killed, members of Congress and a D.C. agency concerned about Hazelton’s violence urged BOP to make efforts to prevent more bloodshed.

If any action was taken – BOP did not identify any – it clearly was not enough.

The deaths raise serious questions about conditions at the prison, particularly staffing.

How could a person be beaten to death in his cell without prison officials knowing until it was too late – and just hours after he arrived at the facility? How could there have been three killings at Hazelton in six months? Are there too few correctional officers to keep inmates – and staff – safe?

The killings of the D.C. prisoners, Ian Thorne in April and Demario Porter in September, were largely ignored. Neither slaying was covered by The Washington Post or any other publication in the Nexis/Lexis database of news sources. Citing those homicides, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) urged Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz to investigate the prison.

Her letter, another from a D.C. official and one from other members of Congress – all related to Hazelton’s violence – presaged Bulger’s demise.

“I believe that the federal employees serving in this facility have likely received inadequate training, are under-supported, and are being compelled to perform duties outside the scope of their positions and their training, which is leading to these horrific and entirely unacceptable outcomes,” Norton wrote to Horowitz on Oct. 18.

On Oct. 22, a letter from Michelle Bonner, executive director of the District’s Corrections Information Council, which inspects facilities where D.C. residents are incarcerated, told Hugh Hurwitz, the BOP’s acting director, that “additional evaluation and corrective action are needed to better ensure the safety and security of all those incarcerated at the facility.”

Three days later, a letter from a bipartisan group of five Senate and House members to Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the two previous Hazelton killings and complained about “dangerous continual understaffing” at federal prisons.

Led by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the letter criticized BOP’s “failure to follow clear congressional directives to hire more full-time correctional officers.” Joining him were Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).

An unsigned BOP public affairs statement ignored a question about the directive to increase hiring. “The BOP has worked diligently to enhance its recruitment efforts to fill critical vacancies, while achieving savings in accordance with the Congressionally-approved Fiscal Year 2017 Department of Justice Budget Plan,” the statement said. “The Bureau of Prisons eliminated several thousand vacant authorized positions earlier this year, which did not result in any actual job losses.”

But that’s a circular argument, say union officials. No one lost a job because positions that should have been filled were left vacant, allowing officials to say they cut positions, but not employees.

Rather than hiring more officers, Hazelton has fewer.

According to data that Richard Heldreth, president of the AFGE Hazelton Local, says was provided by BOP, the prison had 470 authorized officer slots in February 2017, with 39 vacant. In September 2018, those numbers had dropped to 445 authorized positions with 42 unfilled spots. “As of today,” the BOP statement said, Hazelton has 36 vacant correctional officer slots, with 21 projected to be filled.

“It’s a very large facility. It’s dangerous. We’re understaffed,” said Heldreth, who also is a Hazelton corrections officer. “We don’t have as many people walking around probably as we should.”

Bonner’s letter was notably prescient.

“Several inmates also mentioned that detached padlocks used to secure foot lockers in cells are commonly used as weapons, often placed in a sock and swung at the head or body of another individual,” Bonner told Hurwitz after interviewing 53 District inmates at Hazelton.

A lock in a sock, reportedly, was the weapon that killed Bulger, a former Boston gangster.

In her recommendations, Bonner said “the use of detached padlocks as weapons on the units is a clear security issue, and one that could be remedied by providing foot lockers with embedded locks.”

When she asked inmates for suggestions on reducing violence, the most common answer, she reported, "was more jobs, recreation, and programming opportunities.”

While most prisoners could not estimate the frequency of violence at Hazelton, Bonner said a quarter of them suggested that an assault, such as a beating or stabbing, occurs at least every day.

As one inmate said: “This kind of stuff happens on the regular.”

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