The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 4, 2013

State exploring private prisons to ease overcrowding

CHARLESTON — Facing overcrowded prisons and more than 1,100 offenders waiting for beds at a state facility, the West Virginia Division of Corrections is exploring its options with private companies that would temporarily house those offenders out of state.

 The move across state lines would be temporary, and would help offenders fulfill the obligation of their sentencing, according to Lawrence Messina, Communications Director, W.Va. Departmentof Military Affairs and Public Safety.

Messina said many prisoners are spending the front-end of their sentences in regional jails, which do not offer rehabilitative programs, classes and treatments required for prisoners to be eligible for parole, even when their time has been served.

A provision in the state constitution prohibits sending prisoners out of state, so an inmate would have to volunteer to leave the state’s confines in order to complete his or her sentencing requirements, Messina said.

“These offenders have a right to go before a parole board,” he continued.

While cost and available services are key components of the decision when it comes, Messina said the DOC is not interested in sending prisoners to a sub-standard facility and inviting law suits.

“The goal is to pursue research-driven means to protect the public,” he said. “My understanding is the DOC will take an extremely close look at the services for West Virginia inmates, including staffing and facilities.”

Messina said two companies, Corrections Corporation of America of Nashville, Tenn., and Community Education Centers of Ky., attended a pre-bid meeting and have expressed interest in providing services to W.Va. prisoners.

Corrections Corporation of America’s website says the company offers academic education, addictions treatment, faith-based programs, life skills training and vocational training.

“Providing fair, humane treatment to prisoners and detainees, and operating our correctional facilities at the highest level of safety and security are CCA’s two most important priorities for our daily operations,” the website says.

For-profit incarceration is not without its critics, however, and Corrections Corporation of America seems to be at the center of that criticism. Left-leaning publications from Mother Jones to The Nation and online publications like truth-out.org have criticized the company for its profits and its request that states guarantee prison beds are 90 percent full in spite of crime rates.

Grassroots Leadership, a national social justice organization, estimates that “states will collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars this year incarcerating state prisoners in private prisons outside of their home states.”

California is one of those states. With four CCA properties within its borders and roughly 8500 of its prisoners housed out of state, California makes up 12.1 percent of CCA’s $74 million funds from operations as of September.

Although  California Division of Corrections Press Secretary would make no qualitative statement regarding CCA’s facilities or operations, he did say that his state would like to have its prisoners returned to California facilities.

“From a rehabilitation point of view it is not at all preferable to have inmates thousands of miles away from home,” Callison said. Prisoners have better prospects for rehabilitation if they have contact with their family and friends, he said.

In addition, Callison said, California would rather have its prisoners supervised by “our own staff and in our own prisons inside California.”

California made the move to private prison facilities several years ago when its system was in a state of emergency due to overcrowding, Callison said. The prison population is now considerably lower, he continued, but the overcrowding plan has been suspended because of a federal lawsuit. Callison said the ruling is expected any time.

West Virginia is waiting on its own Supreme Court of Appeals ruling on its own overcrowding issues.

Public Defender George Castelle has filed a petition with the state’s high court that claims the WVDOC has failed to implement other, less costly, measures than shipping prisoners out of state, including:

-- awarding extra good time

-- creating special programs to provide prisoners with additional opportunities to earn recommendations for extra good time

-- identifying aging and other appropriate prisoners for commutations of sentences

Castelle’s position says that the DOC should comply with the provisions of a 2002 Long-Term Plan instead of shipping prisoners out of state, which he calls “expensive and constitutionally questionable.”

The plan was developed to relieve a backlog of DOC prisoners lingering in regional jails more than a decade ago and was intended to relieve overcrowding by 2007, according to Castelle’s petition.

Messina said the DOC is “going to ramp up”  efforts to improve community-based corrections resources, and is in the process of a research-driven study of the DOC with its own officials, members of the Supreme Court, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, state and local officials and community leaders.

“We have to be smart about how to deal with parolees who who re-offend,” Messina said.

—  E-mail: ppritt@register-herald.com

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