Recently, five Democratic members of the West Virginia House of Delegates took a tour of the South Central Regional Jail in Charleston. Delegate Andrew Robinson (D-Kanawha) said he was taken aback by what he saw.
“South Central was built for around 260 inmates. They have 573 there right now,” he said on Charleston Mayor Danny Jones’ radio show 580-Live on WCHS. “In some of the pods there were two to three inmates in each cell and there were probably six or seven beds strewn out into the commons area where people were sleeping as well.”
The regional jails are bursting at the seams because there’s no room in state Division of Corrections prisons. There are currently 1,400 sentenced inmates who should be in state prisons now housed in regional jails.
The overcrowding is only part of the problem. The state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (DMAPS) says the staffing issue has reached the crisis stage because of low pay.
The starting salary for correctional officers has stayed the same since 2009–$22,584. That’s the lowest in the nation and about $2,000 below the federal poverty level for a family of four. As a result, the turnover is continuous and positions go unfilled.
According to a report from DMAPS, “There were 448 correctional officer separations from the WV DOC in FY2016, over 75 percent left within the first 24 months, a little over 66 percent left within the first year of service.” Currently there are 600 openings for correctional officers.
The staffing shortage means correctional officers frequently have to work double shifts. The overtime helps pad their salaries, but the long days dramatically increase the burnout and make an already stressful job even more difficult.
“They’ll leave and go work a minimum wage job somewhere else because it is safer and they don’t have to do the things they have to do in the jail system,” Robinson said.
DMAPS officials have submitted a plan to address the problem that includes a higher base pay and improved salaries for correctional officers with post-high school training or military service. Additionally, DMAPS wants to pay 80 percent of the tuition for existing employees with at least five years of service if they want to purse an advanced degree in a corrections-related field.
Finding additional funds for corrections or a new prison won’t be easy. The state budget is already tight and spending taxpayer dollars on housing criminals is never popular. However, the status quo has a dangerous feel to it… like a simmering pot that’s eventually going to boil over.