In declaring an emergency over low staffing levels at West Virginia’s corrections facilities, Gov. Jim Justice called on the National Guard to fill the gap.
However, the number of vacancies and the number of soldiers and airmen involved in the mission are quite far apart.
After signing an executive order sending guard members to work in state prisons and jails, Justice said in a coronavirus briefing this week that the problem would be handled.
“The National Guard will absolutely handle this situation, until the regular session, if we want to wait that long,” Justice said.
In published reports, Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sandy said state correctional facilities currently have more than 1,000 job vacancies, most in the correctional officer entry level position.
West Virginia Adj. Gen., Maj. Gen. Bill Crane said 93 guard volunteers are now being trained to assist jail and prison staff. He said they will work in administrative roles like control center management and camera operations, having no direct contact with inmates
“That was one of the stipulations that I put in,” Crane said. “I just don’t want to put any of our folks at that high of a risk when you have fully trained corrections officers that are able to do that mission.”
Crane admitted most guard members don’t figure on prison work as part of their mission statement, but said some do.
“With our military police, we have a mission set that actually is detainee operations,” Crane said. “We have folks that are trained to do this anyway, on the Army side.”
Justice said with every neighboring state paying more to its corrections workers, West Virginia must significantly change its wage structure to solve the problem.
He said with a 60 percent vacancy rate in the Eastern Panhandle, raising pay regionally is something to consider, but said the downside is that the rest of the state corrections workers making markedly less, might feel slighted.
“Then, you got a food fight going on,” Justice said. “Then the next thing that happens is, you may be in a situation where you bump everybody up significantly.”
In 2018, the National Guard provided corrections department assistance for six months. Crane said these missions cannot go more than one year without financial consequences.
“So we’re going to do it for 364 (days),” Crane said. “Our hope is at that point, there will be enough new corrections officers that we’ll be able to back out of that mission set.”
West Virginia Public Broadcasting contacted the West Virginia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Homeland Security for information on efforts to fill the vacancies but received no response from repeated requests for interviews.