CAPITOL BEAT: West Virginia lawmakers to tackle jail and prison reform

CAPITOL BEAT: West Virginia lawmakers to tackle jail and prison reform
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 11:50 AM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WVVA) - Just as Gov. Jim Justice appointed a new Commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Thursday, William Marshall III, lawmakers across the Capitol were grilling prison and jail leaders on the state of their system.

At a hearing on West Virginias Prisons and Jails, Acting Commissioner Brad Douglas addressed lawmakers on a number of issues plaguing the regional jail system, with correctional officer pay at the top of the list.

Due to the current pay of correctional officers, Douglas said a third of their positions are now vacant -- putting both inmates and correctional officers at risk. The starting pay of a correctional officer currently stands at around $15 an hour. Compared to what places such as Hobby Lobby and Aldis pay, above $16 an hour, he said their ability to retain quality correctional officers is severely challenged. He said the staffing shortages have led to an average 30 percent vacancy rate statewide.

Del. Eric Brooks, (R) Raleigh County, was recently appointed to the Jails and Prisons Committee. He said increasing CO pay appears to be a top priority for the Governor, House, and Senate. “We don’t know the numbers just yet. What we do know is this is a top priority for the Governor, House, and Senate. It’s definitely at the top of the agenda.”

Del. Brooks is a former federal correctional officer himself. He said the conditions these men and women are forced to work in warrant far more compensation. In August, the Governor was forced to call in the National Guard to assist with the more than a thousand staff vacancies statewide.

“It’s unsustainable,” adds Brooks. “Bringing in the National Guard to fill’s not something we want to continue to do obviously.”

But just how much more money they will receive has yet to be decided. Delegate Brooks, along with Del. Brandon Steele, (R) Raleigh County, would like to see quality of life issues addressed as well.

“What we’re being told is there’s going to be some re-classification on the part of the Department of the Administration as well as a request in the budget to pay these individuals more,” said Del. Steele. “Personally, I’d like to see something in code that not only increases pay but improves the quality of life for these individuals.”

One way to do that, he said, would be to bring their retirement benefits on par with state law enforcement officers so they have the option to retire earlier. In the past, Del. Brooks has also advocated for that idea.

“We’re having overdoses in Southern Regional Jail,” said Steele. “There’s a lot of issues going on. This is not a third world country. We shouldn’t have the National Guard in our prisons and jails.”

This morning, the division of corrections and rehabilitation also offered new numbers regarding staffing shortages at prisons and jails in Southern West Virginia. At Mount Olive State Prison, there is currently a 40 percent vacancy rate. At Southern Regional Jail, that vacancy rate hovers just above 30 percent.