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West Virginia Legislative Oversight Committee told of 983 staffing vacancies at regional jails, correctional facilities

Legislators updated on prison work release pilot program

By Matt Young, West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, on Tuesday, heard testimony from Brad Douglas, chief of staff for the W.Va. Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR). Douglas’ talking points included current DCR staffing concerns, as well as several recent “legislative initiatives” designed to enhance the state’s rehabilitation efforts.  

“At the end of June, we had 983 total vacancies,” Douglas began. “This is significantly worse than when we thought it was really bad a couple of years ago. We started to do really good after the corrections consolidation and the ‘2-2-2’ corrections pay raise that the legislature and the governor passed a few years ago.”

The “corrections consolidation,” and the “2-2-2” pay raise were both enacted in 2018. The “consolidation” saw the restructuring of several departments beneath the correctional department umbrella, while the pay raise provided an additional $6,000 in the salaries of current officers, as well as an increase in the starting salary of those newly hired. 

“COVID did the same thing to us that it’s done to many people, and it’s been downhill since then,” Douglas said. “We have had significant issues recruiting and retaining staff. It’s a tough job on the best day.”

Despite the increased salaries offered to correctional officers in recent years, Douglas noted, they remain “not as competitive as we thought they were.” 

Douglas explained that the statewide officer-vacancy rate is “about 30%.”

“I also want to highlight some facilities that are worse than that,” Douglas added. “We now have officer-vacancies of 70% at Vicki Douglas Juvenile Center, 53% at Chick Buckbee Juvenile Center, 58% at Eastern Regional Jail, 65% at Potomac Highlands Regional Jail, 48% at Northern Regional Jail, and 42% at Western Regional Jail.”

The current starting salary of a corrections officer in West Virginia is $33,214. 

“Just in the last six years or so we’ve gone from $22,000 starting salary to $33,000, which is just amazing,” Douglas said. “But unfortunately the situation we’re in now with our competitors – everybody else increased their rate of pay, as well.”

Douglas explained how the significant staffing shortage has resulted in the need for some officers to work five 16-hour shifts per week, before transitioning the discussion to the state’s recently enacted “work release pilot program.” Douglas presented the program as one of the more positive DCR developments of recent years. 

“The beds (in work release centers) are not full now,” Douglas told the committee. “We still have a few beds in those facilities, but we’re working every day to fill those.”

Douglas explained how although stricter guidelines enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic limited DCR’s ability to relocate inmates into work release facilities, those restrictions were lifted this past April. 

“We’re still in the process of moving inmates in and determining if they’re appropriate for a work release placement, because the work release unit is really the last stop,” Douglas said. “So it’s going to take us a little bit to get those beds full, but that’s what we’re working on.”

To be eligible for placement at a work release facility, an inmate must be classified as “minimum security,” and be scheduled for release within 24-months. While enrolled in the program, participants leave the facility each day to attend their job, and have access to a “variety of re-entry services,” according to Douglas.

“We’re very proud of our work release units,” Douglas added.

“The empty beds in the work release program, is that due to folks who just don’t qualify?” Del. Bryan Ward, R-Hardy, asked at the conclusion of Douglas’ presentation.

“It is entirely due to COVID,” Douglas replied. “Because we weren’t moving people during COVID, we got behind. We have offenders that are going to be placed in those facilities. It’s just a matter of getting them moved down the system.” 

“This is a world class program, and it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves over the years,” Douglas added, before explaining how the program’s ability to grow going forward is limited only by staffing. 

Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, then shifted the conversation slightly when he requested an explanation of certain statistics regarding those released from incarceration through the “non-violent offense program.”

“There were 28 individuals who have had their parole revoked,” Wetzel said. “I just wondered, out of curiosity, were they for technical violations, or serious offenses?”

While Douglas did not have that information readily available, he did explain that parole-revocations only account for about eight-percent of offenders released through the non-violent offense program. The other 92% are typically taken off parole after the successful completion of one year.

“What research has shown is there is really no public-safety benefit to keeping people on parole for extended periods of time,” Douglas said. “They will inevitably do something that might not get me or you put in jail – like having a beer on Friday night – but will land them in jail. And that starts a whole other cycle of being in jail, and losing their job, et cetera.”

The Oversight Committee will reconvene during September’s Interim Legislative Session, when they will be presented with a full report pertaining to the per diem jail fee. 

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