State outlines plan to shore up ranks at West Virginia correctional facilities

File photo shows the South Central Regional Jail in Kanawha County. State officials announced a plan to help shore up the ranks at West Virginia's correctional facilities under an emergency order issued by Gov. Jim Justice. (WCHS/WVAH)

The West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety has identified 93 personnel within its ranks who can provide short-term staffing to assist at state correctional facilities.

The plan is the result of an executive order signed on Dec. 22 by Gov. Jim Justice when he declared a state of emergency due to the staffing levels of the state's juvenile and adult detention and correctional facilities.

None of the personnel will have direct contact with the inmates and will be drawn from the West Virginia National Guard, Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Division of Justice and Community Services, Division of Protective Services (Capitol Police) and state Fire Marshal’s Office, according to a news release from the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

“The goal of this plan is to free up correctional officers for more direct supervision of inmates,” Lawrence Messina, communications director for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said in an email.

The West Virginia National Guard will provide about 45 percent of the personnel, and at specific facilities will conduct outer perimeter patrols.

State officials said the remaining personnel will help operate facility control towers. They said these are secure environments separate from inmate areas. The secure towers monitor security cameras and control movement through facility doors and gates.

Personnel will receive proper training to perform control tower duties, state officials said.

Hundreds of correctional officers’ positions are empty across the state, leading the ones that are employed to work long hours over an extended period of time.

With correctional officers’ starting salaries less than $25,000 a year, Boone County Del. Rodney Miller said the shortage is endangering staff, inmates and the public.

Concerns about jail overcrowding also have surfaced. The Western Regional Jail in Cabell County, for example, was built in 2003 and designed to hold 394 inmates, David Farmer, executive director of the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, told lawmakers during a recent tour. It serves five counties. He said 197 beds had been added throughout the years, with a total of 591 beds. For inmates who don't have one of those beds, plastic cots have been purchased to ensure the inmates aren't sleeping on the ground.

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