By Mannix Porterfield
Excessive force accusations have left 15 officers at Western Regional Jail on suspension without pay, and the executive director of the Regional Jail Authority says he is more troubled by a suspected cover-up than the brutality itself.
Joe DeLong told the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority on Monday that about 20 officers across the 10-jail system are now suspended during various investigations.
Sen. Bill Laird IV, D-Fayette, a co-chairman of the panel, said he heard of a “rash” of incidents involving excessive force against inmates at Western Regional Jail.
A former four-term sheriff, Laird said reported patterns of misconduct is “when I get concerned and disturbed.”
“I have a greater concern about the buddy system in the Western Regional Jail — see nothing, hear nothing, report nothing — than I do with the rash of incidents,” DeLong said.
Possibly lying to investigators “is every bit as troublesome as the act itself,” the director said.
One inmate was hospitalized with a collapsed lung and a broken back and ribs, DeLong said.
DeLong said one man, who he felt wasn’t involved in suspected brutality, agreed to cover for his fellow officers, alluding to the fact “we were told if we all stick together and stick to the same story, they can’t do anything to us.”
“That culture concerns me more than the use of force,” DeLong said.
DeLong promised the legislators he would address this because “One incident is too many. We can’t accept it.”
Another grim prospect of this attitude is that inmates at times are transferred to other facilities and are inclined to talk about their experiences with officers, DeLong said.
And allowing abuses at one jail could spark a riot at another, the director said.
On another controversial matter, DeLong told the legislative panel he likely erred by saying a state law obligated his agency to give an officer 3,100 hours of severance pay on the very day he was jailed in Beckley on suspected sexual solicitation of inmates.
Laird said the awarding of severance pay to an officer at Southern Regional Jail the day he was accused of sexual misdeeds “shocked the public a little bit.”
DeLong acknowledged that his comments to the media to the effect that state law requires such payment, regardless of the circumstances, was wrong.
Once he got deeper into the rule, DeLong said the payment wasn’t required since the officer was charged with misconduct.
Such offenses “certainly would fall under gross misconduct and he probably shouldn’t have been paid his severance.”
Another side of the coin occurs when officers are suspended without pay pending the outcome of investigations and allegations against them simply aren’t true, he said.
“In the meantime, they’ve had to pawn off belongings in order to pay their bills, or missed bills, or done things that reverse credit,” DeLong told the panel.
“Obviously, if allegations bear fruit (against the 20 currently suspended), we’ve got serious issues. If they don’t, people who have families are trying to figure out whether to buy their kids anything for Christmas this year.”
In another matter, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein advised the committee that the recidivism rate among West Virginia’s inmates dropped from 30.04 percent in 2007 to 28.5 percent in 2008, in the most recent update.
Rubenstein said 20.54 percent went back to prison because parole was revoked, while 8.01 percent were convicted of fresh crimes.
“That’s something we’re still working on and feel we can even get that lower,” he said of the rate.
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