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Making prison safer likely will save money

Because of low pay, the state has difficulty attracting qualified people to work in the state's prisons. A reduced work force leads to 16-hour days for the prison guards on duty.

All that overtime exacerbates the problem by burning out workers.

"The biggest issue is pay," Jack Ferrell, an organizer for the Communications Workers of America, told legislators.

"You can't put people out there doing these jobs and paying them pennies. It's a dangerous job.

"I'd say 90 percent of correctional people have high blood pressure. The divorce rate is high. A lot of them are using alcohol."

Prisons in West Virginia have 150 unfilled positions and 2,200 uniformed employees. State officials are working with the National Guard to recruit Guardsmen to work in corrections.

But the state prison with the most job vacancies - the maximum-security Mount Olive Correctional Center in Fayette County - is the one that most needs a full staff.

Regional Jail Director Joe DeLong said the long shifts increase the issues corrections officers face.

"You have a greater likelihood of injury as well as being a victim of some type of assault or other things within a dangerous environment if you've worked too many hours and you're tired and run down," DeLong said.

"The No. 1 issue when they leave is burnout."

In a pilot program, the South Central Regional Jail added 14 officers in June and greatly reduced overtime from 4,569 hours to 1,005 hours in one month.

Expanding the program to all 10 regional jails by hiring 125 more officers could save taxpayers as much as $2 million.

While saving money is important, safety, recruitment and retention are important reasons as well.

With the federal prison system offering $15,000 a year more to guards, West Virginia cannot hope to win a bidding war.

But better pay would help. Lawmakers should try to raise pay and get those 150 vacancies filled.



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