CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Corrections officials urged lawmakers on Monday to increase the salaries of guards in an effort to fill 600 vacancies and reduce turnover in West Virginia’s understaffed and overcrowded prisons.
Low pay remains a fundamental problem, despite a recent $1 an hour increase added by Gov. Jim Justice’s administration. The raise increased starting pay to $11.87 an hour or $24,664 a year. Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy called it “a Band-Aid on a severe wound.”
Some officers are on food stamps or other public assistance. Many last only about eight months before moving on to other jobs. Meanwhile, eight corrections officers a week are getting hurt at work, on average, Sandy told the House Finance Committee.
“It’s been in a crisis for years,” Sandy said. “When you’ve seen a video, and I look at every video of the incidents, when you see a video of one correction officer going into a pod with multiple individuals, you’re going to have things happen.”
Administrative operations are being consolidated to cut costs, said Joe Thornton, director of correctional operations. Personnel from better-staffed facilities are covering shifts at others, and overtime costs total about $40 million over the past three years.
West Virginia has 16 prison facilities with 5,848 inmates and 1,111 officers, according to the department. Its 10 regional jails have 586 officers and 5,128 inmates, including 1,300 sentenced and awaiting space in state prisons.
“We’re upside down, with lack of a better way to put it, with regional jails,” Thornton said. “Over the last three years, we’ve lost more correctional officers than we’ve been able to hire.”
Despite West Virginia’s $1 raise, surrounding states still pay more — Kentucky about $4,000 more annually and Maryland about $10,000 more to start, Thornton said. “We’ve got to be more competitive,” he said.
The drug epidemic is bringing in more inmates, causing friction from overcrowding, and some of them lash out as they go through withdrawal, officials said. Releasing some non-violent offenders would ease overcrowding and save millions of dollars, since it costs $53,000 a year to imprison each one, they said.