Ticking bomb

Jail overcrowding could lead to disaster

Corrections officials were relatively restrained in what they said last week to West Virginia legislators about severe problems in state-run jails and prisons. They stuck to the facts, which are worrisome enough.

But their unspoken message was this: Jail and prison overcrowding, with drug offenders as a big component, has combined with a lack of corrections officers to produce a ticking time bomb. The possibility of a prison riot and, to put it bluntly, dead corrections officers is very real.

Both in numbers and experience, the pool of corrections officers is woefully inadequate. Legislators were told during an interim hearing Monday that there are 600 staff vacancies at regional jails and state prisons.

Uncompetitive pay is the root of the problem, Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy told lawmakers. The $1-an-hour raise implemented earlier this year is just “a Band-Aid on a severe wound,” he added.

Starting pay for a corrections officer is just $24,664 a year. That is about $10,000 less than neighboring Maryland offers, said Joe Thornton, director of correctional operations. Even Kentucky pays $4,000 a year more, on average.

But assuming a full-strength staff of corrections officers, bringing West Virginia’s pay up to parity with Kentucky would cost an additional $12 million a year. The obvious question for anyone who watched the painful process of balancing the state budget this year is where on earth legislators would find that much money.

Thornton offered that state officials are attempting to reduce costs in the corrections network by consolidating administrative functions. Surely there are other areas of jail and prison operations where money could be saved for use in granting pay raises.

Legislators should explore the possibilities. One way of doing that might be to discuss the matter with rank-and-file corrections employees and with former officials who have left the system during recent years.

Finding ways to operate the jails and prisons more efficiently ought to be a top priority in order to free up more money to pay corrections officers enough to attract new ones and retain experienced ones. If that does not happen, the consequences could be very unpleasant.

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