Lawmakers touring regional jails as correctional officer shortage, pay taking center stage

The escape of a South Central Regional Jail inmate is shining an even brighter light on what’s been deemed a “crisis” inside West Virginia Regional Jails. The issues are stemming from low correctional officer pay that is leading to high turnover and major shortages.

Some lawmakers have been touring the state’s 10 regional jails, getting a first-hand look at the overcrowding conditions and challenges that correctional officers are facing.

Some are calling for raises for correctional officers as a first step in addressing the issues inside the jails.

“We can’t afford not to take care of this,” Boone County Delegate Rodney Miller said. Miller has been organizing the tours throughout the state.

Hundreds of correctional officers positions are empty across the state, leading the ones that are employed to work long hours over an extended period of time.

“They can’t afford to spend 16 hours a day…5, 6, sometimes 7 days a week at a facility away from their family, to not make enough money to survive off,” Miller says. “One of the facilities up in the North Central part of the state, one of the concerns they had was Target. That location had increased their hourly rate. They were afraid they were going to lose corrections officers to Target.”

With starting salaries less than $25,000 a year, Miller says the shortage is endangering staff, inmates and the public.

“Until you actually come in here and see the human aspect of it…the corrections officers, the inmates and the conditions, it’s hard to really understand,” explains Delegate Chad Lovejoy says. This was Lovejoy’s second regional jail tour.

Five delegates toured the Western Regional Jail on Friday. Jail officials did not allow cameras inside but Eyewitness News reporter Leslie Rubin was also on the tour.

Executive Director David Farmer told the group that there were 708 inmates being housed there on Friday, with 18 correctional officers on staff. The ratio on Friday was one guard for about every 39 inmates. Farmer said 25% of Western’s staff is vacant.

“It’s almost a matter of survival once you walk through these doors,” Miller said after the tour.

At one point during the tour, Del. Kelli Sobonya noticed a correctional officer walking down the hallway with four inmates. She questioned the officer’s safety and what would happen if they were overtaken. “This is what we do,” Farmer replied, again noting that there were only 18 officers on staff that day.

Western Regional Jail was built in 2003 and designed to hold 394 inmates, Farmer told the lawmakers. It serves five counties. He said 197 beds had been added throughout the years, with a total of 591 beds. For inmates who don’t have one of those beds, plastic cots have been purchased to ensure the inmates aren’t sleeping on the ground.

Farmer also told the delegates that 140 inmates at Western Regional had already been sentenced to prison but are still in the jail. Counties pay $48.25 for each inmate they send there, with a yearly cost of more than $17,500 for a single inmate.

Miller says it costs about $15,000 to train, certify and place a correctional officer in the jail but that the turnover is costing the state even more.

“With the amount of turnover they had, it’s about $4 million dollars that West Virginia has lost simply because we weren’t paying enough, that could still be here and still protecting the citizens,” Miller said.

The issue is likely to be a hot topic in the 2018 session, with the Regional Jail Authority still reeling the escape of Todd Boyes. Five correctional officers at the South Central Regional Jail are still suspended, without pay, while the internal investigation is ongoing. None have been criminally charged. It is also not clear what the five guard did or didn’t do in regards to Boyes’ escape.

“Being on finance, we are very careful with our budget. I’m hopeful, with the various things that have occurred in this year, and our economy is looking better, that we will have more money and we can deal with the issue,” Del. Carol Miller said.