Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Legislature escapes without fixing jail staffing crisis

The West Virginia Legislature adopted a resolution during the final week of the session extending the State of Emergency in the state’s correctional institutions. Gov. Jim Justice first declared the emergency last August because of severe staffing shortages, and then mobilized the National Guard to fill in. 

The resolution states “That until there is proper staffing to achieve a safe environment within our juvenile and adult detention and correctional facilities, such State of Emergency must remain in effect.”  

Here are numbers from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (including state prisons and correctional centers, regional jails and juvenile centers) as of March 9:  

  • 1,043 unfilled positions, representing a 28% vacancy rate. 
  • 750 of those open slots are for uniform officers, a 33% vacancy rate. 
  • Eight of the state’s correctional facilities have vacancy rates over 40%. 
  • The Potomac Highlands Regional Jail in Hampshire County reported a vacancy rate of 68%. 
  • The Vicki Douglas Juvenile Center in Martinsburg had over half of its positions open. 
  • Since last July, 375 uniform officers have started in corrections, but 359 have resigned. 

Jail administrators scramble daily to operate safely. Correctional officers take double-shifts — either voluntarily or forced. The officers make extra money, but they burn out at an alarming rate and leave for other jobs. 

Justice dispatched members of the National Guard last August to help, and eight months later 339 men and women are still performing support duties. 

The governor’s initial declaration and the legislative resolution are hard evidence of the staffing crisis within corrections, yet the Legislature did nothing to substantially improve the situation. Yes, corrections officers will get a $2,300 increase in base pay like all other state employees, but that won’t be enough to attract and retain individuals to fill the gaping holes. 

A bill that would have increased salaries by $10,000 over three years, as well as provide a $6,000 hiring and retention bonus, died in the House. A Senate bill that would have provided up to an additional $10,000 in locality pay also failed to pass. 

Those were expensive proposals, but the state is already paying about $40 million a year in overtime and to the National Guard. That money could be used for correctional officer raises. 

Justice hinted during an appearance on Talkline Monday that he may call a special session later this year to address correctional officer pay, but there is no agreement among Justice and legislative leaders on what that should be. 

House Jails and Corrections Committee Chairman Delegate Dave Kelly (R-Tyler) said on Talkline he is disappointed by the lack of action, but he does not want correctional officers to give up hope. “I want these officers to know that we have not forgotten about them,” Kelly said. “We want to help them.”  

That help did not come during the regular session, leaving the current untenable situation to fester. This problem is not going to get better on its own; it will only get worse, putting officers, staff and prisoners at greater risk unless the governor and the Legislature take action. 

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.