Correctional officers need raises, lawmakers told

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia needs to raise starting salaries for correctional officers in state prisons and regional jails by at least $6,000 in order to compete with pay rates in neighboring states and reduce dangerously high turnover rates, legislators were told Sunday.

“We have to look at getting to $30 [thousand] to $31,000 just to be competitive with other states,” Regional Jail Authority executive director David Farmer told a legislative interim committee on regional jails and corrections.

tate corrections officer Sgt. Erik Thomas gives a tour of the inmate sleeping quarters at the newly opened Charleston Correctional Center on Hansford Street in May 2015.
(Gazette-Mail file photo by Kenny Kemp)

Farmer did not immediately have cost estimates for such a pay raise, but said the Regional Jail Authority alone will spend nearly $7 million this year in overtime pay to officers who have to work extra shifts to make up for staff shortages. He also said it costs nearly $16,000 to train each new officer, but said many leave before completing the training.

Farmer said regional jails lost 600 officers last year, and currently has 255 vacancies — or about one in three officer positions.

“We do have a staffing crisis,” he said, adding, “They usually leave in the first six months. They don’t even make it through the academy.”

Currently, starting pay for correctional officers in regional jails and prisons is $24,664, and that’s after a $2,080 increase that went into effect on Sept. 2.

Loita Butcher, acting commissioner for the Division of Corrections, said the division is monitoring to see if the pay raise reduces turnover rates for correctional officers at state prisons, telling legislators, “We are hopeful it will.”

Last month, Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy told the committee the state corrections system remains in a state of crisis with nearly 600 job vacancies because of low pay.

“It’s been in a crisis for years,” he said.

Even with the pay increase, state correctional officers remain the lowest paid in the U.S., and Sandy said state prisons and regional jails are losing employees not only to institutions in neighboring states, but to the oil and gas industry, and even to retailers such as Wal-Mart.

In addition to low pay, correctional officers are dealing with severe overcrowding in the state’s 10 regional jails, with an inmate population of 5,024 nearly double the jails’ original design capacity of 2,525. That’s also 737 inmates beyond the total number of beds in the jails.

Regional jails are currently housing 1,570 Division of Corrections inmates because state prisons are at capacity with a total of 5,898 inmates.

Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected], 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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