The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 22, 2013

Prison chief warns of crowding crisis

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Prison Commissioner Jim Rubenstein warned the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday that overcrowding in the state’s prisons has reached a crisis state and that legislation must be passed to address the problem.

“I don’t say it lightly or as a scare tactic, but we are in a crisis situation with the prison population overall,” Rubenstein said. “There is no more room at the inn. If we do nothing, the growth is going to continue. We have inmates in regional jails who are on mattresses on the floor.”

A bill from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, containing most of the recommendations made in a recent report on prison overcrowding in the state, is expected by early next week.

The recommendations of the recent report, if enacted, would slow growth but do little to reduce the inmate population in West Virginia’s already overcrowded prisons, according to the report’s projections.

The report, released in late January and presented to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on Thursday, suggested that better risk assessment of offenders, more substance abuse treatment and more supervised release programs could slow prison growth rates. The state’s inmate population has grown 20 percent since 2007.

The report estimates $116 million in net savings by 2018. Those savings would come from lower prison populations and would take into account additional spending on drug treatment and supervised release.  

Republican legislators oppose some of the study’s recommendations, specifically one that would allow certain felons to complete their sentences six months early on supervised release.

Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley and the House’s senior member, said that officials need to look at increased supervision, but only after regularly scheduled release dates.

Even if the recommendations are followed, however, they would not substantially reduce the number of inmates already in prisons. Even if all the report’s recommendations were enacted, the report projects reducing the population by 2 percent by 2018.

Rubenstein acknowledged the report was not a panacea but said it would give his department some latitude and allow it to start planning more reasonably.

All of the state’s 5,400 prison beds are filled, and there are currently 1,865 overflow prisoners being housed in regional jails that were never meant to hold prisoners for long stretches, the commissioner said.

Rubenstein said it is critical to get those prisoners out of regional jails and into facilities with classrooms, multipurpose spaces, and educational and vocational opportunities. He expects 350 new beds to be built across the prison system this year.

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, said that the reform recommendations did not go far enough.

“Our counties are yelling and screaming about the costs of the regional jails,” Skinner said. “There are folks who are in the jails who would be eligible for parole, but in order to qualify for parole they have to go through a program that is only offered at the prison. It’s impossible. It’s Kafkaesque.”

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha and the chair of the Judiciary Committee, said legislators need to pass a bill this session.

“We’ve kicked this can down the road for several years and it’s time, in my opinion, to act,” Palumbo said. “Maybe what we’re going to do here won’t do enough, but we’ve essentially done nothing for years.”

Staffing the overcrowded prisons is also a perennial problem. Rubenstein said that there is perpetually a 10 to 15 percent vacancy rate for correctional officer positions. He acknowledged that this is at least in part due to the state’s low pay rate, which ranks 49th nationally.

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