The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

June 4, 2014

W.Va. jail authority discusses safety, cost with officials

Local and state lawmakers attend

BECKLEY — The West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority met with local and state lawmakers and officials at Southern Regional Jail in Beaver Tuesday to discuss public safety roles and the resulting costs.

WVRJCFA Executive Director Joe DeLong reported that there are currently an average of 557 inmates per day incarcerated at SRJ, which is 6,741 admissions per year at a cost of $48.25 per day, or $8.5 million per year.

The average daily rate of admissions is 18.

DeLong said that a plan started nine months ago and implemented systematically in the 10 regional jails across the state has reduced employee training costs, risks and inmate litigation since its inception.

Censuring a state law that allows mandatory overtime for correctional officers, DeLong explained that requiring that practice has led to employee burn-out and an employee turnover rate of 50 percent annually in the jail system.

The high turnover rate leads to additional training costs, and the excessive overtime leads to employee “burn-out,” which in turn increases risks inside the jail.

A statewide initiative that redefined pay periods to allow employees to have every other weekend off resulted in a $239,000 decrease of overtime spending at SRJ from July 2013 through March 2014, DeLong reported.

As part of the change, 15 jobs were added at SRJ.

“It’s costing us eight less positions to add 15 more bodies,” he observed.

Once the new initiative is fully implemented, a total of 150 jobs will be added to state regional jails  and will result in a savings of $3.3 million annually, DeLong reported.

P-card spending, or charges to employees’ state spending account cards, was reduced by $2.1 million, or 48 percent, by more diligent internal bookkeeping.

DeLong reported that sexual harassment claims filed by prisoners against officers has increased in recent years and that the jail system has usually paid settlements rather than fight the claims in court, due to a lack of legal resources.

To decrease the instances of such cases being filed, DeLong said, the jail system implemented the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act and added surveillance cameras in order to decrease the instances of allegedly false claims being filed.

The daily, or “per diem,” cost of housing an inmate was decreased $897,000 statewide, and federal inmate revenue was increased statewide by $581,000  due to more assertive contracts negotiations, he reported.

Adding one pay telephone to each pod in the state jail system raised $361,000, said DeLong, and cut down on risks of physical altercations since prisoners had more telephone access.

DeLong said lawmakers could help counties raise jail monies by making sure county prosecutors “do their best” to collect court fees and by passing legislation that would allow the regional jail board members to make spending decisions that impact their regions.

He added that if the Legislature would give the WVRJA the authority to place reserve funds into low-risk investments — instead of the 1 percent yielding fund that is currently mandated — the jail system could see at least 17 percent returns, which would be million of dollars in revenue.

“This is something I ask for support on,” DeLong told lawmakers. “We just need the Legislature to give us the authority to invest.

“It’s almost irresponsible to leave that money sitting at a 1 percent return.”

DeLong said he would like to see legislative policies that allow jail employees to have grievance rights but to give authority to the regional jail boards to make salary decisions and “to work within our own budget and be more efficient ... and reward our staff without asking for one penny from a taxpayer to do it.”

He said the Regional Jail Authority is currently set up as a “private sector, publicly-traded institution that has bureaucracy in the way and is costing us money.”

He added that state correctional officers remain among the lowest-paid in the nation.

Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, said safety and pay issues for correctional officers are immediate concerns.

She added she’s encouraged by DeLong’s report on the changes made in the state’s regional jail system.

“I can see an improvement,” said Sumner.

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