Overcrowded jail system reaching a crisis point

A pair of Randolph County news stories this week illustrate the massive problems the state is facing regarding overcrowding in the regional jail and prison systems.

State Police are investigating what they call the suspicious death of an inmate at the Tygart Valley Regional Jail near Norton on March 8. The body of 36-year-old Charles Ellison has been sent to the West Virginia medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.

Officials would not comment on the cause of death, but did reveal that Ellison’s cell mate – whose name was not disclosed – was transferred to one of the two segregation units at the facility.

On Friday, a hearing in Randolph County Magistrate Court concerned a TVRJ inmate, Jesse L. Heater, 29, who is accused of sexually abusing and harassing another inmate in the jail.

Heater was already facing murder charges in Upshur County in an alleged murder-for-hire plot.

Violence is just one of the problems intensified by overcrowding at the state’s jails and prisons, and state officials have been trying to impress on lawmakers how serious the situation is becoming.

West Virginia Prison Commissioner Jim Rubenstein warned the Senate Finance Committee last month that overcrowding must be addressed by new legislation.

“I don’t say it lightly or as a scare tactic, but we are in a crisis situation with the prison population overall,” Rubenstein said. “There is no more room. … If we do nothing, the growth is going to continue. We have inmates in regional jails who are on mattresses on the floor.”

Rubenstein noted all of the state’s 5,400 prison beds are filled, and there are currently 1,865 overflow prisoners being housed in regional jails that were never meant to hold prisoners for long stretches.

Heater has been housed in the TVRJ since last summer, while Ellison had been lodged at the facility since October 2011.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin introduced a bill Feb. 26 intended to lower costs and ease overcrowding in the state’s prison system. The bill would increase supervision and drug treatment programs for inmates upon release and reduce the number of parolees who are returned to prison for minor violations.

A main provision would mandate that non-violent offenders be released six months early into supervised programs. The bill also provides for one year of mandatory supervision for violent offenders after their regularly scheduled release.

It’s estimated the bill would stop prison growth in the state, but not drastically reduce the number of prisoners already behind bars, according to the Associated Press.

On Friday, state officials announced they want to close Salem’s Industrial Home for Youth and convert the facility into an adult prison. Officials hope the plan will ease overcrowding in the state’s regional jails and resolve a lawsuit targeting conditions at the youth facility.

These plans will be debated over the coming days, but events in our area this week amply demonstrate that the state must deal with the overcrowding issue immediately.