The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 13, 2011

Overtime, inmate assaults increase in regional jails

CHARLESTON — Overcrowded prisons and jails are running up some hefty overtime pay in West Virginia, and a legislative panel Monday heard a nonprofit group tout a community-based program to treat drug-addicted felons — a growing issue in the corrections system.

While there has been no significant jump in inmate assaults on officers within the Division of Corrections, the 10-unit regional jail system has witnessed a rise in such incidents.

As of this week, the DOC was running at capacity, with more than 1,600 state-sentenced inmates awaiting transfer from regional jails.

Unless this trend is reversed, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said, the backlog in the regional jail network will climb to some 3,500 by the end of next year.

Only a month ago, lawmakers were presented with a “rent-a-jail” proposal by Proteus, based in Atlanta, for constructing temporary jails to accommodate the overflow and ease conditions in jails and prisons alike.

“It’s a difficult situation,” Regional Jail Director Larry Parsons told the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jails and Correctional Facility Authority, after noting inmate assaults on officers are growing.

“You don’t know who at any given moment may flare up.”

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, a co-chairman of the committee, was impressed by another statistic — a $6.6 million overtime bill the regional jail system racked up to deal with the surplus of inmates.

While no hard figure was available, Rubenstein said the overtime paid to officers in the prison system likely would mirror that.

Rubenstein said the on-going shortage of officers is another issue that needs to be addressed when lawmakers open the 2012 legislative session, but as of Monday he had no concrete suggestions for the Legislature.

On any given day, he said, there are nearly 50 vacancies at Mount Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County — the state’s maximum security prison. Of that number, anywhere from 38 to 42 are actual officers.

While serious assaults (with injury) on officers has fallen in recent years, Rubenstein said afterward the increase in the regional jail system likely can be explained by having more inmates kept within more confined spaces than the roomier prisons.

Besides, he noted, an inmate assault on a staff member can be verbal, and some convicts are guilty of multiple such incidents.

Overall, within the prison system, there are some 110 to 120 job vacancies every day, the commissioner noted.

Mount Olive recently switched from a 12-hour shift to an 8-hour one, and while this allows officers traditionally a five-day work week, Laird noted they can be held over to 16-hour days.

“It doesn’t compromise (security) because we have critical posts that need to be covered,” Rubenstein said afterward, when asked about officer shortages.

“But what happens, you’re holding people over, they’re working overtime, and you just don’t have the pool of officers who could fill those on the way that you needed. We try not to wear people out. It’s a vicious cycle that’s occurring.”

Janelle Preuter, director of re-entry programs for the non-profit Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, under contract for Illinois’ corrections system, told the panel in its seamless system of care in treating addicts that 16 percent of inmates are less likely to be repeat offenders than others in the state’s penal network.

In the first six years, she told the lawmakers, the program saved Illinois some $16.7 million.

Expanding on the numbers, TASC’s director, Jac Charlier, said Illinois taxpayers shell out $24,899 to keep an inmate locked up, but his group can drop that charge to less than $5,000.

In West Virginia, estimates of inmates behind bars in drug-related offenses have run as high as 80 percent.

Charlier said TASC employs a structured supervision program intended to work in tandem with the recommendations of a prison overcrowding task force named by former Gov. Joe Manchin.

Charlier told the panel that West Virginia ranks 50th in the use of community-based inmate programs.

“Some of the problems we have in our state is the absence of a home plan,” said Laird, a former sheriff in Fayette County.

Charlier agreed with Laird that community-based alternatives offer “a fertile ground based on benchmark standards we see throughout the nation.”

“It’s not for every offender, obviously,” Charlier said.

“It’s for low-level, nonviolent offenders.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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