Let us hope that the Legislature’s answer to any staffing shortfall at public institutions, especially where the state is charged with the care of people, is far more nuanced, informed, complex and effective than Gov. Jim Justice’s simple strategy of only throwing money at the problem.
Yes, of course, our school teachers, prison guards and staffers in Child Protective Services and in psychiatric hospitals – to name four trouble spots in public employment that are in the news – are grossly underpaid, embarrassingly so. And yet we have known about it for years – decades, even. By way of example in the here and now, some prison employees are paid but $15 an hour – about $31,000 a year – a wage that can be matched by private sector jobs that are far less strenuous and stressful than caring for prison inmates.
Yes, when the number of vacancies statewide at correction facilities is more than 1,000, when staffing at West Virginia jails is at a 33 percent vacancy rate and when the remaining officers are working up to 16-hour shifts, the lid will pop eventually and an inmate will end up dead as happened 13 times at Southern Regional Jail in Beaver just last year.
The salary bump is welcome and necessary, but wholly inadequate on so many levels because the systemic issues are layered one atop the other.
Yes, the Legislature should approve significant pay increases for public employees, and they should be scheduled each and every year over the course of the next decade to bring salaries here in line with national averages.
And that should buy some time to study what other supports the prison guards and staffers need. We do not pretend to know, but we know enough not to leave it in the governor’s hands. We have already seen that disaster. When one dead body was showing up after another at Southern Regional, Gov. Justice directed the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR), to conduct an investigation. Yes, he wanted the agency to investigate itself for wrongdoing and bad behavior.
And what did the agency report?
The state’s thin and flimsy 14-page report unequivocally refuted claims of poor conditions at the jail, and we all know that is exactly what the governor was hoping for, a temporary, sanitized shield of defense for a politician who has his eye on a run for the Senate in 2024.
Completed in less than a month and, apparently, after just two visits by investigators to the jail on March 30 and April 5, the state report leans heavily on the testimony of 50 unnamed sources, including inmates whom investigators themselves characterized as liars.
The report has all the markings of an inside job, done quickly and on the cheap, written for an audience of one, the governor. It was conducted and compiled by West Virginia Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sandy, who once served as chair of the Regional Jail Board from 2012 to 2016 and now serves in the governor’s cabinet.
No conflicts of interest there, right?
The report was made public in late April. By August, and for the second time since taking office in 2017, Justice was declaring a state of emergency for the state’s prisons and regional jails, citing severe staffing shortages across the state’s 11 prisons, 10 regional jails, 10 juvenile centers, and three work-release sites.
But what has the governor done in the meantime?
Nada, zilch, nothing.
So nobody is surprised to hear testimony by acting Corrections Commissioner Brad Douglas, who said on Thursday, “We’re absolutely working our people to death, and they’re quitting because of that.”
Significant pay hikes may stop the bleeding – figuratively and literally – but only temporarily.
The Legislature needs to tackle the monumental task of what all the state can do, must do, to support our public employees.