The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 23, 2013

Labor and Safety looks into prison issues

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Low pay, too much unwanted overtime and general stress that comes with working in a volatile and dangerous workplace came into play Monday as the new Labor and Worker Safety Committee looked inside West Virginia’s crowded prisons.

Perhaps the most telling glimpse came from a man who spent a career working as an officer at West Virginia’s two maximum security prisons — the old one in Mounds-ville and the newer one at Mount Olive.

“Most correctional officers tell you the inmates run the prison,” Jack Ferrell told the committee. “You’re just there to keep order. At any time, they could take that prison if they wanted. Most are on good behavior. You’ve got about 10 percent of them that are not.”

In his last week as an officer at Mount Olive, he put in five 16-hour shifts, and that kind of duty wears out staff to the point that the workers cannot function up to speed under such duress.

“You don’t think clear,” said Ferrell, now an organizer for the Communications Workers of America. “And the inmates know it.”

Ferrell once was assign-ed to the bloody North Hall Section of the old fortress-like prison in Moundsville.

“I probably didn’t go a week that I didn’t hear somebody said they were going to kill me,” he said. “You don’t always believe it, but believe me, it can always happen very easily in a prison.”

Ferrell made a pitch to increase the pay of correctional officers, telling the committee that retention is so low that many of the ones he sees on visits as a CWA representative look like “kids.”

“The biggest issue is pay,” he said. “You can’t put people out there doing these jobs and paying them pennies. It’s a dangerous job. I’d say 90 percent of correctional people have high blood pressure. The divorce rate is high. A lot of them are using alcohol.”

Even if all positions were filled, however, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein suggested that officers would remain at risk because a minority of the convicts simply won’t behave.

“Eight percent never get the message,” he said. “They’re troublemakers. They’re murdered people on the outside. They’ve murdered people on the inside. They’re a danger to everybody.”

The committee zeroed in on prisons and jails in its initial meeting, seeking answers to alleviate problems of worker safety there at a time the institutions are overpopulated.

Regional Jail Director Joe DeLong said the need to work officers in the 10-unit system up to 20 hours or longer per shift “increases the issues they face in a very thankless and demanding job.”

“You have a greater likelihood of injury as well as being a victim of some type of assault or other things within a dangerous environment if you’ve worked too many hours and you’re tired and run down,” he said. “The No. 1 issue when they leave is burnout.”

DeLong told of a pilot project at South Central Regional Jail where 14 officers were added, and this produced an $18,000 savings compared to the previous months by cutting overtime.

“You can actually save money by adding people, as strange as that might sound,” he said.

In fact, he told the committee, adding sufficient staff can save the state between $1 million and $2 million, based on figures in the pilot project at South Central Jail.

Overtime can never be scrapped altogether, and even higher pay cannot eliminate burnout, since many factors come into play, the former House majority leader said.

Delegate Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia, wanted to know if any correctional officers have ever sued inmates over assaults.

“No,” Ferrell told her. “We have a lot of inmates sue the correctional officers, though.”

DeLong suggested the lawmakers pay close attention to the impact of SB371, passed last winter in a move to ease crowded conditions, which he called “the ultimate goal.”

He told the panel that the officer/inmate ratio has risen 38 percent.

“That creates a more volatile situation,” he said. “Not only do you have more sardines pack-ed in a can, but you’ve not added anybody to watch that number.”

The panel is co-chaired by Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com