Regional jail guards alleged to have injured inmates
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Several correctional officers at Western Regional Jail are on suspension over allegations they severely injured an inmate, and one state official is concerned that a "buddy system" among guards is keeping other misconduct from being punished.
Joe DeLong, executive director of the state Regional Jail Authority, promised "swift action" on the allegations in front of a legislative panel in Charleston Monday. He expects some people will lose their jobs for helping to cover up wrongdoing.
During his monthly presentation before the Legislature's interim Regional Jail Oversight Committee, DeLong was asked what led to a large number of suspensions at the Western Regional Jail.
Of the approximately 20 corrections officers currently on suspension, DeLong said 15 worked at Western.
Four were caught with some type of contraband in their possession, and DeLong said officials were investigating whether the officers were trying to sell to inmates.
The others are accused of using excessive force on inmates. One prisoner still is recovering from broken ribs, a collapsed lung and broken vertebrae, DeLong said.
"A large majority of those folks are tied to use of force issues where some level of significant bodily harm happened as a result," DeLong told lawmakers.
DeLong did not provide the names of the inmates or the officers involved.
But DeLong's bigger concern is that correctional officers seem to be covering up the misdeeds of their coworkers.
"I have a greater concern about the buddy system at Western Regional Jail of 'see nothing, hear nothing, record nothing,' than I do a rash of instances," DeLong said.
"I suspect that there may be people in the end of this that I recommend for termination that ultimately may not be part of the act, but lied and withheld information during the investigation - which to me is just as troubling as the act itself," he said.
In one excessive force incident, an officer gave an initial statement he was unaware of any wrongdoing, DeLong said.
DeLong confronted the officer again after officials received additional information indicating he knew more than he said.
"I talked to him myself and simply asked him, 'Do you have children?'" DeLong said. "He said, 'Sure,' and I said, 'When did you decide to choose your buddies over them?'
"And at that point he said he did in fact witness it," DeLong said.
DeLong said State Police conducted interviews last week. He hoped to have a report back by early next week.
Once the report comes back, DeLong told lawmakers the authority will move quickly on its findings.
State officials are looking at revamping the way the Regional Jail Authority handles suspensions and terminations.
When an officer is accused of impropriety, he or she is suspended without pay pending an investigation. Once the investigation ends, the officer is either cleared and receives back pay for time off or the accusation is upheld.
Then the officer is subject to disciplinary action or firing.
Fired guards are given 15 days of severance pay.
DeLong said last month that rule allowed a Southern Regional Jail officer who was arrested for sexually abusing female inmates to collect more than $3,100 in severance while sitting behind bars.
State Police arrested William Roy Wilson, 39, of Beckley on Sept. 20 on felony charges of soliciting sex from female inmates. The same day, State Auditor's office records showed Wilson was issued a $3,143.53 termination check.
During an October Regional Jail Authority meeting, DeLong said the check was required by state rules.
But when lawmakers asked DeLong about the payment Monday, he said that wasn't actually the case.
"I was wrong," he said. "The rule, as we break into it more deeply, does define in acts of gross misconduct that someone does not get severance."
DeLong said if he had a chance to make the decision again, he would not have issued the check.
"I would say the inappropriate sexual misconduct that this officer was accused of, we would certainly find that as gross misconduct," he said.
But beyond that case, DeLong said the legal definition of "gross misconduct" is still somewhat of a "gray area."
He plans to have meetings with Division of Personnel officials to go over the rules and recommend improvements.
Some lawmakers said they would support a change in either state personnel laws or rules extending the severance pay exemption beyond gross misconduct.
"I think maybe you should change the rule where you don't pay severance for any type of misconduct," Sen. Gregory Tucker, D-Nicholas, said.
"Severance, in private industry, is typically used in a reduction in force or to entice someone to leave," Tucker said. "I've not seen it used where there's been misconduct of any sort."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-5148.