Overcrowding problem persists in West Virginia jails

West Virginia has long had a problem with overcrowding in its jails, and that problem hasn’t gone away.

Overcrowding is a through-line in a class action lawsuit about conditions in the jails, a root with other problems branching out. The lawsuit underscores that between 2000 and 2009 West Virginia’s prison population more than doubled, the leading growth rate in the nation. And from 2018 to 2022 that got even worse.

“Overcrowding makes a facility less safe, secure, and humane than it could be,” the lawsuit states. “West Virginia’s facilities have always been overcrowded. Overcrowding results in having two to three inmates in a cell and inmates sleeping in the day room of the facility.”

There are legislative opportunities ahead to focus on the overcrowding issue and attempt to provide some relief.

The Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority meets at 11 a.m. Tuesday during interim meetings that lawmakers use to learn and plan. The regular session of the Legislature starts this Wednesday and continues over 60 days.

Recruitment and retention of corrections officers has been a recent focus of state officials. Governor Justice declared an emergency on corrections officers staffing levels that still continues, although officials have described steady improvements after pay improvements passed in special session a few months ago.

David Kelly

Now the overcrowding issue might get renewed focus.

“I feel certain that overcrowding will be a topic in the committee this session. It’s my desire, and I believe the committee as a whole,  to keep our jails and prisons front and center,” said Delegate David Kelly, chairman of the House Jails and Prisons Committee.

Corrections acknowledges overcrowding

The state Division of Corrections has taken steps to alleviate the effects of overcrowding, but there’s only so much the agency itself can do.

“We don’t have the opportunity to hang no vacancy signs out front. We are required to take who we’re given, who is under arrest and who is incarcerated,” said state Corrections Commissioner William Marshall in an interview last week with MetroNews, noting that he has participated about court reform and bond reform.

“I would be willing to assist in any way that I could. But as far as making a pitch for what it would be I don’t feel like it is my area right now.”

Billy Marshall

The number of people in West Virginia jails shifts by the day. On the day Marshall spoke, there were 9,575 adults incarcerated with 24 percent of those — a few more than 2,300 considered pretrial defendants.

Overall, on the day Marshall spoke, the inmate population was 167 over capacity combined for all 10 regional jails. But that capacity is not spread evenly. Some of the jails are significantly over and some are under.

So three challenges with alleviating overcrowding are intertwined: West Virginia has some overcrowded jails and others with capacity, but they are not necessarily conveniently near each other. Many people in jail may be short timers who also need to appear for court hearings, so they can’t be easily relocated to jails with capacity. And with a staffing shortage, Marshall can’t free many resources to transport those people.

So, for example, on the day Marshall spoke North Central Regional Jail in Doddridge County was considered over capacity by 200.

Potomac Highlands Regional Jail in Augusta, Hampshire County, had 100 beds available.

But it wouldn’t make sense to move 100 people assigned to jail from Doddridge County to Hampshire County, about three hours apart, if they had to get back roughly where they started for court dates.

Some nonviolent offenders can be moved to beds at the state’s prisons, which are not over capacity. “We’re able to move some of those individuals to available prison beds to alleviate some of the population issues that we have,” Marshall said.

The corrections system has also been examining the safety of supervising some offenders in communities, rather than in facilities. “We’ve got our parole officers now working different shifts, day and night, to try to meet with some of these parolees families to see if they can be released. There’s things like that that we have been pretty aggressive with.”

In situations where overcrowding occurs, Marshall said one-occupant cells are shifted to become two-person cells, with each inmate receiving a mattress and as much precaution as possible to ensure the two people are reasonably compatible.

“We understand the challenges that overcrowding can create. It’s been one of my main points of emphasis to address because it makes for a better work environment for my employees,” he said. “You can make a better environment by not having it overrun with inmates.”

Gov. Jim Justice

MetroNews asked Gov. Jim Justice during a briefing last week about his impression of whether overcrowding remains a problem in the jails — and whether executive action or legislative proposals might help.

“First and foremost, I’m not the expert,” Justice responded. He concluded his response by saying, “We want to take care of those folks as best we possibly can.”

How many are assigned to the floor?

Overcrowding problems are widespread in West Virginia’s jails, said Sara Whitaker, criminal legal policy analyst with the progressive West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

Her research, built by state responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, has led to the conclusion that about a significant number of people in jail have to sleep on mattresses on the floor. State officials have said not only that mattresses are issued, but that they come with a sturdy frame.

For example, the North Central Regional Jail was designed originally to house 394 people. By this past Dec. 4, North Central’s inmate population was 760. Even with additional beds allowed at the facility, Whitaker’s research shows 228 people assigned to the floor there.

The raw data that the state provided to Whitaker showed these floor bed assignments: 200 people at Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, 176 at Southwestern Regional Jail in Logan County, 164 at Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg, 162 at South Central Regional Jail in Charleston and 156 at Southern Regional Jail near Beckley.

Corrections provided information for the number of people in each regional jail facility with a bed assignment number ending in ‘floor’ or any code/abbreviation for ‘floor’ According to the response, the grand total of the state’s numbers of inmates assigned to the floor as of Dec. 4 was 1,284.

After this story was initially published, officials with Corrections questioned whether those numbers truly reflect the number of people assigned to the floor. Marshall, the Corrections commissioner, testified to lawmakers that the state’s tracking system hadn’t been updated to properly account for assignments. He said that is being improved.

The actual number assigned to the floor on that Dec. 4 date was 285, Marshall told lawmakers on the jails oversight committee.

“Now keep in mind that these individuals are not sleeping on the floor unprotected,” Marshall told lawmakers. “They sleep in what they call a boat. It looks like a kayak, for lack of a better term. It sits about a foot off the ground, it’s fiberglass, and the regular, standard-issue mattress fits inside.”

He added, “It is a result of having too many inmates assigned in a facility that’s designed for a certain number.”

Whitaker noted that they are the state’s own numbers and that it’s a continuing challenge to assess conditions in West Virginia’s jails if figures provided by the state aren’t fully reliable.

Whitaker, a former public defender, has a range of proposals for how West Virginia might alleviate the overcrowding problem.

Among those would be a critical look at legislation calling for new criminal offenses and longer sentences. Long sentences don’t make us safer, she said, but they have turned prisons into warehouses for an aging population. “The governor can veto legislation that will continue turning our prison system into nursing homes,” she said.

Sara Whitaker

Another policy consideration would be ensuring defendants have access to meaningful bail.

And probation and parole were conceived originally as reforms to keep people out of prison. But last year, 1 in 4 people who entered a West Virginia prison were incarcerated for a “technical violation” of probation or parole, she said. For example, that could include a positive drug screen or missing a supervision appointment.

“This governor can support legislation that would end technical violations – saving hundreds of people from prison when they haven’t committed a new crime,” Whitaker said.

And the Governor, the parole board, and corrections commissioner also have the power to release people who are elderly, ill or who do not pose a threat to the community. Those instances are incredibly rare, Whitaker said. “It is time for the executive branch to use all the tools at its disposal – medical respite and compassionate release, pardon and parole – to send more people home,” she said.

Such paths can only be taken if there’s straight talk about conditions in the jails, she said.

“We can’t expect the legislature to solve this deadly crisis if they are not being told the truth about how people live in West Virginia jails,” Whitaker said.

Legislative attention to jails

The libertarian-leaning Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia has advocated for bond reform, including 2020 legislation. 

More changes remain necessary, said Jason Huffman, executive director of AFP-WV. He said a coalition has been gathering data that could lead to policy recommendations and working with legislative leaders.

Jason Huffman

But more time may be required to build momentum, Huffman said. He did not expect action this legislative session.

“That’s a long term project that I don’t think we’ll see a solution in the near term, but it’s vitally important in the long term,” Huffman said.

He added, “We’ve taken some steps, but my hope is that potentially under a new governor and with this data in mind we’re going to be able to have a much more robust response.”

Joey Garcia

The ranking minority member of the House Jails Committee is Joey Garcia, a Democrat from Marion County. Garcia has gone into West Virginia jails regularly over the years, both for his work as a lawyer and to enhance his knowledge as a public official.

He agreed that the West Virginia overcrowding problem needs to be in the legislative spotlight.

“It certainly doesn’t feel like we’re not in a situation where we’ve got less people in our jails,” Garcia said.

“There have been several deaths in the last couple of weeks also, so that’s continuing and could be a symptom of overcrowding and the lack of ability to get your hands around the situation in the jails.”

He said lawmakers could examine possibilities like bail reform, home confinement, other alternatives to sentencing in a regional jail or correctional facility.

“When it comes time to look at criminal penalties,” Garcia said, “we always seem to be raising criminal penalties, which will have the opposite effect from what people want with overcrowding.”





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