CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Some of the worst individuals in society are locked up in West Virginia. The thin line that separates them from the rest of us continues to weaken.
“We have about 600 vacancies in the ranks of our Corrections Officers,” said State Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy. “We are in a crisis.”
The crisis is nothing new. It has been on the radar of the legislature for several years, but like many issues at the state Capitol during the legislative session, money becomes an obstacle. When funds are tight, priories are narrowly examined and usually more money for jails and prisons isn’t a popular idea. Sandy warned it’s a potential powder keg.
“We have criminals that would cut your throat in a second if they were to escape from our facilities,” Sandy explained. “This is a public safety matter.”
The problems for the agency continue to be high turnover and a lack of recruiting success. Those problems are fueled by low pay. The starting salary for a corrections officers in West Virginia is around $24,500 annually or about $11.86/hour. Officers received a $1 an hour increase in the past two months as an emergency allocation. Sandy said the raise prevented five resignations, but the lure to leave is constant.
“These people need to earn a living,” Sandy explained. “Sheriff Minks of Washington County, Ohio, loves us. He runs a jail there. We train them and then he hires them at $15.60 an hour.”
As guards leave, the burden on those who remain is increased. Guards are pulling longer shifts with extra overtime. According to Sandy some are even sleeping in the jail and returning to their shift after only a few hours of sleep. The stress mounts on each individual and creates an even more dangerous scenario.
Staff shortages are just part of the problem, the jails are dealing with extremely overcrowded conditions. Inmates are bunked two and three to a cell designed for one and some are sleeping on cots in the commons areas of the facility.
The Justice Administration and Sandy have a plan that they hope lawmakers will give priority in next year’s session. The measure centers on pay improvement, but Sandy wants to sweeten the deal to attract potential corrections officers in future years.
“Let’s look at education as a recruiting tool, Our state universities have excellent criminal justice and psychology programs,” Sandy said. “I want to work with our legislators to not only maintain a good workforce, but develop leaders of tomorrow. I want to reward those who have more education.”
Five members of the House of Delegates seem ready to champion some kind of solution after a recent visit to the South Central Regional Jail to see conditions first hand. Sandy hopes their visit will be an eye opener to fellow members of the legislature.