Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

January 8, 2013

Officials urged to seek ways to ease prison overcrowding in W.Va.

CHARLESTON — A mother pleaded with lawmakers Monday to look at excessive prison terms to ease overcrowding, saying her own son is pulling 15 years to life for delivering a single punch.

“This is the worst of the worst for injustice,” Phyllis Gaspell told the Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority.

Not only are sentences too long to fit the offenses, but Gaspell said the parole board is refusing releases for such trivial indiscretions as failing to have a fresh shave.

A 34-year administrative assistant to the president of District 17 of the United Mine Workers of America, she said her son is pulling a long sentence for malicious wounding, even though he had no history of serious crimes such as murder, rape or armed robbery.

In his case, Gaspell said the son, now 40 and looking at seven more years at Huttonsville Correctional Center, was put away for similar crimes in which a weapon was used by others to stab or half beat a victim to death.

“Never for punching a guy one time,” she said.

“This happens in bar brawls every Saturday night and we all know that.”

Another man served a mere year in a regional jail for throwing one punch that proved fatal, Gaspell said.

“I’m not asking for special treatment from anyone for my son,” she said.

“I’m just asking for justice. He’s already served eight years for one punch.”

With overcrowding a major issue before the Legislature in the months ahead, Gaspell said she isn’t suggesting the committee cannot come up with a solution.

“But it’s hard to put yourself inside the walls when you’re outside the walls,” she said.

“Figures and stats on paper and on your computer are one thing. But experience and living it is a whole new story.”

For instance, she told the lawmakers, a first-degree murder conviction can lead to a term of six to eight decades.

“We need to dig into these circumstances with individuals who commit these crimes and see whether rehabilitation or some other alternatives is out there,” Gaspell said.

As she spoke, an updated report from the Regional Jail Authority showed the 10-jail system is housing 203 inmates in excess of total beds.

Southern Regional Jail in Beckley contains 88 more inmates above the number for which it was designed.

Gaspell told of a Wheeling man, then 19, who held up a drug store in his hometown and faces 60 years behind bars, with taxpayers putting up $29,000 annually to feed and shelter him.

“In most states, first-degree robbery is five to 10 years,” she said.

“We have to look at these cases individually.”

Gaspell complained that inmates who play by the rules are systematically turned down by the parole board for some minor infractions such as not being clean shaven or skipping classes.

“Model inmates just cannot get out of the system,” she told the committee.

Halfway houses likewise are exacerbating the congestion in prisons and jails by recommitting inmates for simple infractions, such as having a cell phone, she said.

“A cell phone seems like a very small, minute thing that you want to take him back and put him back in prison another year or two,” Gaspell said.

“If he gets caught with a cell phone, just take it away. He’s caught again, take it away.”

That, she insisted, is a better means of discipline than adding the prison bill to taxpayers.

“Our laws are old and they need to be worked on before the overcrowding problem is even dented,” Gaspell added.

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