By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Joseph Tyree, the newly hired state director of correctional recruiting, told legislators Sunday that there’s no magic solution to resolving chronic shortages of correctional officers at state prisons, regional jails and juvenile facilities.
He said the only solution is to appropriate enough money to make the officers’ salaries competitive.
“What I suggest as a member of a team, is that you find money to do this,” he told a legislative interim committee on Regional Jails and corrections.
Tyree said his concern is that shortages of correctional officers, coupled with ongoing overcrowding at prisons and regional jails, could spark an incident that will result in lawsuits against the state.
“It’s pay us now or pay us later if something goes wrong in any of our facilities,” he said, adding, “I think we’re setting ourselves up.”
Tyree said prison and regional jail inmates are well aware that the institutions are understaffed, with correctional officers forced to work as many as five 16-hour double shifts in a row.
He said things could get worse in the near future, with many of the more experienced correctional officers approaching retirement age, with no financial incentive to stay on once they’re eligible to retire.
“Once they leave, and if we don’t backfill and backfill soon, we will not have the experience we need to run these facilities,” Tyree said, adding, “They don’t just leave. They take all that knowledge and experience with them.”
Tyree said he could not comment on whether understaffing contributed to the escape of Todd Wayne Boyes from the South Central Regional Jail last month, except to say, generally, “If you had enough people there, he may not have walked out.”
Tyree, a State Trooper for 21 years, noted that the state had a similar problem recruiting and retaining State Troopers in the late 1980s, and the Legislature stepped in and increased salaries to make them more competitive.
He said he believes corrections and regional jail staffing shortages could be resolved if the starting salary for correctional officers was increased to somewhere between $30,000 to $32,000, with proportionate increases for current staff.
Tyree said he would also like to be able to pay bonuses for years of service milestones, to have an accelerated system for promotions and to possibly set up a program to offer low-interest housing loans to officers.
Also Sunday, Regional Jails executive director David Farmer told legislators he could not offer much additional information on the Boyes escape, pending completion of the State Police investigation.
That included a question as to whether jail personnel had been bribed to assist in the escape.
Currently, five officers have been suspended pending completion of the investigation, and an employee of the jail’s medical services contractor was fired.
Farmer said the division will “absolutely” pursue criminal charges against any personnel if the investigation warrants.