CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Gov. Jim Justice.has declared a state of emergency for corrections officer staffing in West Virginia.
Justice plans to use the state’s National Guard to maximize staffing at the facilities until “legislative and operational remedies can be developed and implemented.”
Severe understaffing at West Virginia’s jails and prisons has been the subject of concern among public officials for the past several months. The next legislative session begins in less than two weeks, Jan. 10, 2018.
Justice’s order, signed on Dec. 22, says the number of correctional officers is fewer than what recommended to safely operate the facilities. It concludes there is a danger to the public and also to those who are jailed.
The issue came to a head in early November after the escape of an inmate from the South Central Regional Jail. State officials said staffing problems at the jail may have contributed to the security breakdown.
“We have a terrible problem with turnover and retaining experienced, qualified officers,” Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said at the time.
An announcement issued Friday afternoon by the Justice administration did not mention the state of emergency declaration but instead focused on an executive order allowing corrections staff to carry over annual leave.
Vacancies at West Virginia’s prisons, regional jails and juvenile facilities have required staff to work overtime throughout 2017, leaving them unable to take their use-or-lose annual leave, the Justice administration noted in a Friday afternoon announcement.
“The State recognizes that these employees are subject to unused annual leave expiring at the end of this calendar year, and that they have not been able or permitted to use the annual leave that they have accrued, through no fault of their own,” Justice stated in the executive order.
State personnel rules cap the amount of annual leave that public employees can carry over from one calendar year to the next. Annual leave in excess of that cap must be used during the year it is earned or it expires.
The executive order allows all correctional officers and employees of the Division of Corrections, Regional Jail Authority and Division of Juvenile Services to carry their unused annual leave into 2018.
The three agencies are part of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
The administration said the order would mean that at the Huttonsville Correctional Center, for example, nearly 600 hours of leave would be rolled over.
And throughout Juvenile Services, the executive order would preserve more than 2,000 hours of annual leave or enough for nearly 52 weeks, the administration stated.
“The hard working men and women of our correctional agencies have been going above and beyond to protect West Virginians from some of the worst individuals society has to offer,” Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy stated.
“Due to their dedicated service and long hours at work, many have been unable to take their earned vacation this year. I applaud the Governor for his action. Without question, the Governor respects and cares about these public servants.”
West Virginia corrections officers have been the subject of attention over the past few months because of their low pay.
The annual minimum salary for a regional jail worker is around $22,000. With that pay, employees are also having to work up to 16 hour shifts because there are not enough people on their staff, Sandy told legislators earlier this month.
“We do not have enough people,” Sandy said at legislative interim meetings this month. “Last year, for every one individual, we hired two people.”
WCHS-TV posted a copy of the executive order: