W.Va. prison overcrowding problem could see solution
CHARLETSON, W.Va. -- There are fewer inmates crammed into West Virginia's overcrowded prison system than expected, thanks in part to a new facility and legislative initiatives, the state's top corrections official said.
Despite the progress regional jails still house more than 1,000 offenders meant for prison. The problem is forcing the state to look outside of its borders for a solution.
The prison population surpassed 7,100 inmates during the 2013 legislative session and the state expected that number to bulge to more than 7,500 this month, Division of Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said.
Instead, there were 6,784 as of Wednesday, Rubenstein said.
"So we're seeing a drop, we're seeing a significant drop even below the projections," he said.
"Hopefully we're making some headway much quicker than anticipated."
The state celebrated the opening of the 388-bed Salem Correctional Center, a site credited with easing some of the overcrowding burden, on Wednesday. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and others attended a ceremony to formerly recognize the completed transition of what was once the state's only maximum-security facility for youth offenders.
"With a continued focus on rehabilitation, education, and substance abuse treatment, the Salem Correctional Center has jump-started our renewed commitment to safeguarding the public while steering offenders away from a life of crime," Tomblin said, in a statement provided by a spokeswoman.
A decision earlier this year to make the site an adult prison addressed two problems plaguing the state.
For years the facility served as a juvenile detention facility known as the Industrial Home for Youth. In 2012 though Mountain State Justice, a Charleston-based public interest law firm, filed a lawsuit against the home alleging those in charge focused too much on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation.
In late 2012 Mercer Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn, appointed to oversee the case, ordered the state to make significant changes.
At the same time, the Legislature was considering a bill promoted by Tomblin to allow judges more flexibility in sentencing, especially for nonviolent offenders.
After Tomblin announced the state would close the Industrial Home to use it as an adult prison, employees immediately questioned whether their jobs were on the line. Rubenstein said Wednesday he thought "99.9 percent" of the employees were able to transition to one of the roughly 200 jobs at the new adult prison.
That includes former Industrial Home Superintendent David Jones, who serves as the new warden of the adult correction facility.
The transition was not altogether smooth: Mountain State Justice filed another lawsuit alleging unsafe conditions at the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center, another juvenile facility on the same property.
Aboulhosn agreed the conditions were unsafe, and ordered all offenders moved from the facility by the end of September. Eventually the state Division of Juvenile Services created a plan to move the offenders to other locations within the system.
The adult facility opened once the remaining juveniles at the Jones center left the property. As of this week there were "a tad" more than 300 inmates at the correctional center, Rubenstein said. All 388 beds should be filled in the next few weeks, he said.
In addition to the Salem facility he also credits the ideas included in the prison reform measure the Legislature passed. While it's too early to quantify the effects of the measure, which became law in July, Rubenstein thinks the bill promotes the idea of transitioning inmates through programs that will make them successful candidates for parole.
That's the same idea that led the division to look for more prison space out of West Virginia, he said.
The state still has about 1,180 inmates housed in regional jails, Rubenstein said. He said those inmates don't receive the programming they need while in jail, hurting their chances of parole.
"I just don't think that's the right thing in preparing individuals to go before the parole board," Rubenstein said.
"I just think it's a shame for somebody not to be able to get the treatment they need."
Earlier this year the state called for companies to submit bids for a contract to house about 400 inmates outside of the state.
Although Rubenstein said the state tailored the bid request so that other state correctional agencies could qualify, only two private prison companies attended the mandatory pre-bid meeting.
The companies are Corrections Corp. of America and Community Education Center, Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Larry Messina told the Beckley Register Herald.
Private prison companies, including CCA, have face allegations of valuing profit above their product. Rubenstein also acknowledged he's heard concerns as to whether it's legal to send inmates to out-of-state facilities.
He said "numerous legal minds" have informed the division it is legal, and the request for proposal extensively outlines programs that must be offered.
Inmates must volunteer to go to an out-of-state facility, according to the request for proposal documents. Facilities closer to the state will also receive an edge over those further away.
"We're not banishing anybody, and it's not ... out of sight, out of mind," Rubenstein said.
The state is asking the companies to submit what they would charge per day to house the inmates. The division spends a little more than $60 per day on each inmate in its facilities, and pays $48.25 for each inmate housed in the regional jails system.
The state doesn't need to accept a bid from either company if it's more expensive than current prices, Rubenstein said. Cost is the largest factor in awarding the bid, according to the request for proposal documents.
The state is scheduled to open the bids at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.