Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

September 13, 2012

Shipping inmates out-of-state an option

CHARLESTON — Shipping convicts across state borders to ease prison overcrowding in West Virginia remains an option, says Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Joe Thornton.

In testimony this week before an interims committee, Thornton said the idea of out-of-state placements remains “something that isn’t entirely off the table.”

And, a union leader appealed to the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority to deal with a shortage of correctional officers that is straining staff with overtime shifts.

Thornton provided no details of the prospects of sending West Virginia inmates to jails in other states, at a time when more than 1,800 state-sentenced inmates are awaiting transfer in the 10 regional jails.

“We ran into a hiccup, if you will, based on language and the per diem payments that are specifically for regional jails and corrections to pay that per diem rate,” he said.

“I’m not sure the language gives us the opportunity to funnel that money in different directions to work on trying to develop an out-of-state placement program.”

But as lawmakers wrestle with the crunch of inmates in jails and prisons, Thornton indicated the concept of sending inmates outside the state to serve sentences hasn’t been abandoned.

“It’s something we haven’t taken off the books,” he said.

The idea was advanced a few years ago but at the time, one lawmaker, former state Sen. Shirley Love, D-Fayette, cited a post-Civil War law that forbid it, as a means of easing tensions and avoiding repercussions between the North and the South.

If the idea can be worked out, Thornton said upwards of 400 inmates could be relocated in another state.

“It’s just a matter of trying to use the money earmarked for regional jails for per diem payments in a different direction,” the MAPS secretary said.

Thornton said West Virginia’s parole rate is about 50 percent, contrasted with the national one in the high 40s.

“We’re actively working on elements trying to reduce the over population, ease the crowding,” he told the committee.

“I look at this as something for all three branches of government.”

Elaine Harris, international representative for the Communications Workers of America, said the staff shortage is forcing many officers to put in long hours and this burdens them in trying to take care of family needs.

“It’s really become very much of a juggling act that’s almost possible,” Harris told the committee.

Many live long distances from their work places and this only compounds working extended hours, she said.

“The body can only endure so much,” she said.

“We’ve definitely got to have some solutions, versus continuing to talk about it. It’s not an issue where we can just point fingers.”

Harris renewed her pitch for improved starting pay and incremental raises to both attract and retain officers.

“Unlike the private sector, where you can maybe put off things for another day, or say, ‘We’ll get that done when we can get around to it,’ this is public safety and public safety cannot be put off for another day,” she told the panel.

“Folks are working day in and day out to ensure public safety.”

Harris said she is “fearful of something happening,” to officers be it inside the jails and prisons, or en route home, weary from working a long shift.

“This is a crisis situation,” she said.

“We all have to come up with some solutions, and not for tomorrow, for today.”

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