UPDATE 4/16/14 @ 9:40 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – People visiting West Virginia jails to see family or friends who are in prison will still get to see them, but a new rule makes it off-limits to kiss, hug or touch inmates during visits.
Joe DeLong, executive director of the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority, tells WSAZ.com this is all to crack down on drugs and contraband inside West Virginia’s jails, as well as to make the facilities safer and more secure. He says it has been a growing problem throughout the last couple of years.
“I'm convinced that there's no way we can rehabilitate people, especially on drug-related crimes, if they can still get drugs while they're incarcerated,” DeLong said.
DeLong tells WSAZ.com that officer safety is also a concern inside the jails. Typically, he said, five or six families will have simultaneous contact visits with their inmates in a large room staffed by a single officer, who may not be able to keep an eye on what each family is doing.
“We've caught people on camera during the kiss, passing [drugs] from mouth to mouth. Suboxone strips, which are made a lot like the Listerine strips you see that are basically clear – they'll hug each other and push the suboxone strip against the clothing,” DeLong said. “You can't see it and you can't feel it in a pat-down search, and so basically only the inmate knows where it is, and they go back to their cell and remove it from their clothing. It creates a real safety and security issue for our facilities.”
DeLong also said there was an instance in which a family member put pills in the back of a child’s diaper and passed the child to the father to hold. While the father was holding the child, DeLong said, he reached his hand into the diaper and retrieved the pills.
While DeLong noted the social benefits of allowing contact visits, he said that the risks outweigh the benefits at this point.
“Contact visitation is a privilege. It's not a right,” DeLong said. “There are a lot of jail systems in America that don't allow any contact visitation at all.”
The new rule will not apply to people who have not yet had a trial and are simply being held in the jail, DeLong said, but will apply to convicted inmates who have been incarcerated for at least 30 days and who have contact visitation privileges. He said it will also not apply to attorneys coming to visit inmates.
“There are going to be people who are going to advocate for inmate rights and that's important. I'm going to err on the side of the rights of my employees and my correctional officers being able to go home safely to their families at the end of the day,” DeLong said.
In early May, jail administrators will meet to discuss the problem and could choose to end contact visitation completely. In that case, DeLong said, they would likely allow video visitation, which is currently being tested at the Central Regional Jail.
WSAZ.com reached out to the ACLU and several Legal Aid organizations to find out how this would affect their clients but as of Wednesday night, the organizations had not yet responded.
Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest on this story.
A directive issued by West Virginia Regional Jail Authority executive director Joe DeLong prohibits inmates from hugging, kissing or shaking hands with loved ones at the beginning and end of contact visits.
The directive also prohibits children from sitting with inmates.
DeLong says the directive is a temporary solution to stop the smuggling of drugs into the 10 regional jails.
He has appointed a committee to examine the issue.
DeLong says one jail administrator reported that a visitor hid drugs inside a baby's diaper. The drugs were then passed to an inmate holding the baby.