The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 11, 2012

Firings, suspensions handed out at WRJ

CHARLESTON — Half a dozen officers have been fired or suspended, a seventh quit, and eight others remain under the microscope in an inmate brutality case at Western Regional Jail, lawmakers learned Monday.

Regional Jail Authority Director Joe DeLong said the eight are still off the job without pay, pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

“We can be very good at treating the symptoms on the back end,” DeLong told Delegate Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, when he asked if supervision is a major part of the problem.

“My concern is how we reorganize and the steps we take moving forward so we’re better in the future.”

DeLong was questioned at length by the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority about two separate beatings at the Western facility.

He told a co-chairman, Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, that none of the brutality occurred in the booking area.

DeLong also told Perry there is “a potential” that action could be taken against the facility’s administrator once the pending inquiry is concluded, but in the initial one, no such punishment is likely to be ordered.

When the matter was disclosed last month, DeLong said he was troubled by what the other co-chairman, Sen. Bill Laird, also D-Fayette, referred to as a “code of silence,” in which nonparticipating officers kept mum about the beatings.

If found to be complicit, DeLong said other officers could be disciplined as well.

DeLong said his agency uses a mitigation committee to look into such matters and must be careful so that any decisions reached pass muster with the grievance board.

“We’ve had several actions in the past that have not held up before the grievance board,” he told the committee.

DeLong also told Laird that he is eyeing ways of improving pre-employment psychological testing, although the one in use “comes highly recommended.”

Laird wanted to know if DeLong had examined the test results of the Western officers disciplined in the beatings that put one inmate in a hospital with a collapsed lung, broken back and ribs.

“I don’t need to look,” the director said.

“I know what the testing is going to say, that they were OK, move on to the next step in the process.”

DeLong suggested that his agency is limited in its ability to conduct investigations, noting a deputy director had to be pulled from his routine duties to look into the Western incidents.

“I can’t just create positions,” he said.

“I don’t have the authority to do that.”

As two separate inquiries are still in progress, one by the State Police, the director told Morgan that “one tremendous challenge” is his agency’s ability to beef up middle management.

“We offer little or no training on being shift commanders when no one else is watching,” he said.

In a report to the committee, DeLong noted that on any given day, the 10-jail system lacks 194 officers, compared to last year’s daily average of 179.9.

Southern Regional Jail’s actual shortage has improved from last year’s daily average of 20.4 to 18.8.

At troubled Western, the situation has gone from 18.4 short per day to 24, and it is there where the highest number of state-sentenced inmates are kept — 659. The next highest total is 598 at North Central, while Southern’s number awaiting transfer to prison stood at 539.

This year, the regional jail agency has paid $7.1 million in overtime, compared to $6.6 million a year ago.

DeLong said one of his concerns is that as officers advance in career, they tend to work a day shift, leaving the less experienced on duty at night.

At Western, “the majority of challenges exist on the evening shift when the top brass typically is not in the facility.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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