The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 21, 2013

Committee to examine if safety compromised by overcrowding

W.Va. CORRECTIONS SYSTEM: Observations of authorities, officers to be sought in effort to improve prison conditions

CHARLESTON — Is safety a burgeoning casualty of the crowded conditions behind the walls of West Virginia’s prisons and regional jails?

If so, can the newest committee of the Legislature do something to make life less tense for officers and inmates alike?

In an attempt to answer those questions, and move toward some resolution, the Committee on Labor and Work Safety Issues wants to hear from corrections authorities and likely some officers themselves at some point in this year’s interims.

Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, alluded to the prison reform act passed two months ago by the full Legislature.

“That’s going to be a help long term, but we’ve got to deal with some immediate safety issues right now,” Hall said Thursday, after the panel held its first meeting.

“From what I understand, the overcrowding is creating conditions where there are too many people in certain areas and there aren’t enough officers to handle it the right way.”

Hall said he understands the prison system has suffered a few incidents in recent years, apparently linked to the tension spawned by the congestion. Some 1,800 state-sentenced inmates are housed across the 10-unit regional jail system, and, as Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein has often lamented, “There is no more room at the inn.”

And Hall fears that the situation remains volatile.

“You’ve got too many people in one place and something’s going to explode,” he said.

“I want these people to go do their job in a safe manner and come home to their families at night. I’m concerned about that. You’re talking about dealing with inmates in a pretty rough environment.”

Hall feels the new committee will take testimony from several in the corrections field, and that could include officers themselves, and carefully study any recommendations.

“Other states have overcrowding issues as well,” he said.

“We’ll hear how other states handle those problems.”

The new committee is chaired by Sen. Jack Yost, D-Brooke, who found it “very appropriate” the panel held its first meeting on West Virginia Day in the very city where the first capitol was located.

Another study item is how to provide incentives to keep state employees on the job.

“State employees have good benefits but don’t make high salaries,” Hall said.

With budget constraints, and agencies under a 7.5 percent budget cut imposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Hall acknowledged that incentives likely won’t entail any pay increases.

A third study item before the committee in the months ahead is safety training for employees on the payrolls of nonmining businesses.

“There’s not much attention outside mining,” Hall said, explaining why the panel wants to look at all other businesses in regard to workplace health and safety.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration leads a 10-hour safety training class, but Hall described this as “a very, very brief class on general safety.”

Morever, he said, the class might not be applicable to all businesses, since some could need an expanded course and others an abbreviated one.

“I’m getting different information as to whether this is even a good training class,” the senator said.

“We need to have very specific training for some things.”

Hall said the panel has a fourth target in mind — the concept of the Buy American Act — and how this can be used to promote West Virginia-produced goods.

In line with that, retiring Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, brought to the meeting a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, detailing how a bridge under construction in New York City is employing steel purchased in China.

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