Lawmakers tour regional jail
Lawmakers got a firsthand look at the state's prison and jail overcrowding problem during a tour of South Central Regional Jail Tuesday afternoon.
About 30 legislators and their staff members joined Division of Corrections and Regional Jail Authority personnel on a two-hour tour of the South Charleston facility.
"It's eye-opening," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha.
An attorney, Palumbo had met with clients in the regional jail interview rooms. But Tuesday was the first time he saw prisoners' living areas up close.
"To be able to see not just the size of the rooms, but the fact that there's two people in such a really small space," he said.
Living areas are organized into "pods." Each two-story pod has eight living areas arranged in a circle around a central guard post.
Each living area has a common room with tables and a flat-screen TV on the wall. Living quarters are split on two levels along the outside wall of the pod, and there's a shower room on each level.
Four of the living areas have 16 sleeping cells each. The other four have eight cells each.
Each cell is roughly 10 feet long and 7 feet wide and was originally designed to house one prisoner, with one bunk and toilet installed.
As the overcrowding problem grew, most rooms had a second bunk installed, although some inmates still sleep on pads 3 inches thick on the floor. Cells don't have dividers to give prisoners privacy while using the toilet.
Except for the one hour per day in the concrete outdoor recreation area and the one hour of gym time per week, inmates have to remain in their living areas - either interacting in the common area or staying in their cells.
"I don't know how people can live in these conditions, with these tiny cells, with two people in a cell," Delegate Bonnie Brown, D-Kanawha, said.
Steve Tucker, South Central Regional Jail administrator, said he is currently housing 147 inmates who should be in a Division of Corrections prison, where there is no room.
Tucker said many of those inmates would prefer to be in a prison because those facilities have more classes, rehabilitation programs and internal job opportunities to occupy their time.
"They will all tell you doing time in a jail is the most difficult time to do because there's nothing to occupy your time," he said. "In virtually every case, they will tell you they prefer to be in a penitentiary."
The 147 corrections inmates account for most of the overcrowding problem at South Central.
The jail is at 171 percent capacity, with 513 inmates housed in a facility that was designed to hold 300.
Tucker said the overcrowding has led to another problem: understaffing.
"We can't hire and keep good people - it's that simple," he said.
South Central was designed for an 80-member staff and currently employs 60. The highest it has reached during Tucker's tenure was 70, he said.
"It's virtually impossible to recruit and keep good people as corrections officers at $22,500 a year," he said. "The good people we do get, we work them to death, they burn out, and then they're gone."
He told lawmakers that a $2,000 to $3,000 salary boost could help ease some staffing problems.
Another problem lawmakers have noted is the lack of drug rehabilitation programs at the regional jail level. While felons have access to rehab programs in prisons, misdemeanor-level offenders don't get those programs in regional jails.
Even inmates say that should change.
"You all need more drug programs," inmate James Miller told visiting lawmakers. "And not just the 'go talk to someone' ones, but actual treatment programs."
Miller, 24, was convicted of a DUI-causing-death charge. He was serving a home confinement sentence of four and a half months when his methamphetamine addiction caused him to violate the terms.
He is serving his remaining three months in the regional jail.
Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, said the problem with sending someone like Miller to a regional jail is the lack of rehabilitation programs that would help him if he was serving time in a prison.
"Regional jails are not meant to deal with this kind of thing," Poore, a criminal defense attorney, said.
"There are misdemeanor clients who still have the same problems when they get out. This is the only place they ever go, and when they leave here, they don't have anything different than they had before."
She said lawmakers should either change their approach to drug crimes or expand rehabilitation opportunities in regional jails.
"Our job is to try to keep them from coming back here," she said. "Taxpayers don't want to pay for them to come back again and again and again. We want it to be so that when they get out, they're better citizens than when they came in."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.