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Claims of sexual misconduct at prisons, jails costing state millions

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia spent nearly $12 million over the last decade in court costs, lawyer fees and settlement monies for sexual misconduct claims at prisons and regional jails.

The state paid out $5.1 million to prisoners and their lawyers in settlements and fees from Jan. 1, 2003 and June 1, 2013, according to the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management (BRIM).

The state spent an additional $6.6 million to defend sexual misconduct cases over the last decade, using the money to pay its own lawyers, expert witnesses, special investigators and court fees.

While many claimants did not receive any money, a handful received hundreds of thousands of dollars from BRIM. The state paid $2 million for a claim filed in Sept. 1, 2007.

The average settlement, however, was about $20,000.

The Daily Mail obtained financial information about the cases through a Freedom of Information Act request to BRIM earlier this month.

In many cases, the state spent much more money defending itself against sexual misconduct claims than it paid out in settlements.

The state Department of Corrections and the Regional Jail Authority spent at least $10,000 in defense fees and court costs on almost every case, according to BRIM data.

The average case cost about $26,000, but some were far more costly.

A claim filed against the regional jail system in January 2003 cost $350,000 to defend, although the state paid only $75,000 in settlement monies.

There has been a surge of sexual misconduct claims at state jails and prisons over the last five years. While remaining mostly in the single digits through 2007, inmates filed 21 sexual misconduct claims in 2008.

The next year, that number jumped to 43. In 2010, there were 83 sexual misconduct claims filed against corrections personnel.

Claims have tapered off since then, with 45 filed in 2011 and 26 filed in 2012. Only two cases have been filed so far this year.

Joe Delong, executive director of the state Regional Jails Authority, said he is not sure the jump in cases reflects any pattern or trend.

"We still have too many of them. And we still have too many of them that have a basis of merit as well," he said.

Overcrowded

Delong said "better than 90 percent" of claims were by female inmates against male officers. And he said most of the female inmates who file claims have been sentenced by the state, and were in jail awaiting beds in the state's overcrowded prison system.

There were far more alleged cases at state jails than prisons. From 2003 to 2013, there were 97 claims filed against the Department of Corrections. There were 157 claims filed against the Regional Jail Authority during that time.

Delong said one reason for that disparity is the number of corrections personnel at the facilities. There are around 2,000 correctional officers in state prisons, watching over 5,400 inmates.

In the jails, there are about 900 officers for 4,900 inmates. Delong said in some cases there is only one officer for 100 prisoners.

"They're fairly comparable in the number of inmates they have to house, but the RJA does it with half the staff. You're really comparing apples to oranges, to some degree," he said.

Delong attributes the recent drop in sexual misconduct claims to extra safety measures put in place by the regional jails.

There are about 260 female inmates in the regional jails awaiting a spot at Lakin Correctional Center, where the state houses all of its female offenders. There are about 450 inmates at Lakin.

The authority recently moved all female inmates awaiting placement in Lakin to Tygart Valley Regional Jail in Randolph County.

The jail system then installed surveillance cameras in all corridors and sections of Tygart Valley. Inmates and correctional officers can now be seen at all times.

Regional jails also are implementing regulations from the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which includes a confidential reporting system from inmates, and have rearranged its staffing patterns to hire more guards for less money. Corrections officers receive regular training

"I think we're getting much, much better in creating a more safe and secure environment," Delong said.

He said correctional officers also receive regular training about appropriate relationships with inmates.

"It certainly is an ongoing challenge. In a lot of cases you have very young, not far out of high school correctional officers who are working late at night in environments with seasoned criminals," he said.

While many sexual misconduct cases involve corrections officers abusing their authority and forcing or coercing inmates to engage in nonconsensual sexual activity, Delong said many inmates try to persuade officers to have sex because they know they will receive a settlement.

Even in cases where both parties are willing partners, state law makes clear inmates can never give consent for sexual activity with corrections officers.

"So even if the inmate is the one who instigates activity, the corrections officer is always at fault because the inmate cannot give consent," Delong said. "Unfortunately, there are times that they are able to get our officers to do things that are inappropriate."

Jails have attempted to crack down on this activity by monitoring inmates' conversations with guards.

"When they're needed at one in the morning, they get called over the intercom system. We now record those conversations because a lot of times, inappropriate activity begins with inappropriate late-night conversations, from the cell to the tower officer," he said.

Listening to those conversations allow jail officials to intercede before the relationship goes too far.

Jim Rubenstein, commissioner of the state Division of Corrections, said state prisons also train guards to recognize and avoid inmates' attempts to involve them in illegal activity.

"One of the main things from day one that we talk about, you don't have sex with an inmate and you don't get lured into the situations that put you in precarious places and situations where you could compromise yourself and other staff in the facility," he said.

'Recruiting'

The state's Lawyer Disciplinary Board filed charges against Huntington lawyer Kerry Nessel on May 13, alleging he brought frivolous lawsuits against the state Division of Corrections and solicited business from inmates at Lakin Correction Center.

Nessel, who will appear at a hearing before the board in October, is accused of recruiting inmates who had claimed they were sexually abused and offering them a cut of settlement monies for referring other inmates to him.

Delong acknowledged there has been, at times, "recruiting going on" among lawyers and inmates. He said Nessel was "probably predominately the main guy," although there are a few other lawyers who also are attempting to solicit business from inmates.

Although Delong would not say how many lawyers engage in the unethical practice, he said "you could count them on one hand."

He said the recruiting behavior is being appropriately addressed, however, and the Regional Jail Authority has turned over audiotapes of inappropriate inmate-attorney conversations to "the appropriate authorities."

Delong said his main focus, however, is reducing the number of sexual misconduct cases filed in state jails.

"There's the old saying about people in glass houses," he said.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

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