Staffing emergency in W.Va. jails, prisons

Staffing emergency in W.Va. jails, prisons
Published: Dec. 8, 2022 at 6:17 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Taxpayers depend upon correctional officers to keep their families safe, but at some jails in West Virginia more than 65% of positions are vacant.

At one jail, the vacancy rate stands as high as 75%.

And closer to home, Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, has a vacancy rate of 45% -- nearly half, all according to Brad Douglas, acting commissioner for the state’s Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“So, even at some of the facilities that are relatively in a better shape than the worst ones, we’re in bad shape,” he told lawmakers Tuesday.

Douglas said the agency has expanded advertising and hiring events, increased the base salary and just recently started offering a $1,000 bonus for those who agree to stay on for at least one year.

Still yet, Douglas reported more than 1,000 vacancies statewide.

The situation so bad, that West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency in August. That allowed the National Guard to move in and help staff the facilities.

More than 200 guardsmen are currently on post, Douglas told lawmakers.

“Those guard members are absolutely critical to safe operations now in many of our facilities, as they cover many of the, what we call control posts or posts that don’t require immediate inmate contact,” he said. “So your towers, your central control, your front gate, your perimeter patrol. Those things that don’t require immediate inmate contact, they’re covering all of those posts in many of our jails, and they’re very, very appreciated.”

Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler, was quick to provide perspective.

“What I want everybody to know is that, this isn’t a fix,” he said to Kelly. “The National Guard and DNR, this isn’t a fix. This is not going to fix the problem. Our problem is long-term, and we need to come up with a plan that can attack that, correct?”

“Absolutely, the guard is not sustainable long term,” Douglas replied.

So WSAZ NewsChannel 3 took the issue to Governor Justice on Thursday.

“What is the plan going forward?” asked WSAZ Investigative/Political Reporter Curtis Johnson.

“The plan has to be some kind of merit pay going forward, to tell you the truth,” Justice replied. “There’s got to be some level of pay or incentive type pay for location.”

Supporters say locality pay -- the idea of paying workers more, based upon where they live -- would help the state compete for workers.

Locality pay for state troopers and correctional officers failed earlier this year in the state House of Delegates.

Delegate Kelly says lawmakers are working to revive the proposal, Douglas calling that an important part of a possible solution.

Lawmakers could consider locality pay as early as next month.

As of now, the estimated starting salary for a correctional officer is $33,000 a year with 7% raises given to those who stay on for a second and third year.