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.