Randy Yohe Published

Jail Worker Crisis Highlights Legislative Interims

A female guard sits in a jail cage, high above inmate cells.
A National guard member, responding to a state of emergency, sits in a WV jail cage, high above inmate cells.
West Virginia National Guard

A full slate of legislative interim sessions begin this weekend. One of the biggest will look at addressing the crisis in state jails and prisons.

State corrections leaders will address the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority Sunday afternoon.

Brad Douglas, executive officer, and William Marshall, commissioner for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation will report on current employee recruitment, retention and vacancy rates with the division. They will also make a presentation on the juvenile population in the Bureau of Juvenile Services.

Testifying in recent committee meetings, Douglas and Marshall described the state’s worst correction officer shortage in 30 years. They counted more than 1,000 open positions and vacancy rates reaching 70 percent in some facilities. 

Committee member Del. Joey Garcia, D-Marion, said not correcting the vacancy crisis with proposed pay raises was the biggest failure of the recent legislative session. 

“There’s been a number of reports and some type of federal investigation into deaths of inmates and two incidents of alleged violence or abuse,” Garcia said. ”I’ve seen more cages than I ever have, because they don’t have enough correctional officers to take people from one place to another within the jail. I’ve heard from clients about there being more prolonged lockdowns, again, because they don’t have the manpower.”

House Bill 2879 would have given correctional officers a $10,000 pay raise over three years. The bill called for an initial $5,000 raise, followed by $2,500 over the next two years. The current starting pay for West Virginia correctional officers is about $33,000 a year, markedly lower than comparable positions in neighboring states and federal holding facilities.  

The bill passed the House Jails and Prisons Committee unanimously but died in the House Finance Committee. Garcia said the bill needs to be revived, with amendments.

“The pay raises also need to be extended to staff members who have stepped up and have gone into the prisons and done the jobs that many correctional officers do,” Garcia said. “I think they need to be included. There’s also that one time retention bonus, which would be about $5,000. For those officers and staff members, that can be a needed, one time payout.”

Gov. Jim Justice said in a March 15 media briefing that he has tried for two years to get correction officer pay raises. He said the legislature has to get off the bubble on this.

“Is the next alternative to say, ‘I’ll tell you what, let’s do. Let’s just don’t arrest anybody. And let’s just open the jails up and let everybody go,'” Justice said in the briefing. “You can’t blame people that can go right across the border to better themselves.”

Garcia said a special session needs to be called before the problems get even worse.  

If the governor won’t act, the legislature needs to, we can call ourselves in,” Garcia said. “And if the legislature won’t act, then the governor needs to do so, but we have to have some leadership on this issue.”

In a statement, Justice said he still agrees on pay raises and that the problem must be solved. So far though, there is no word on a special session.