Editorials, Opinion

A novel approach to the jail staffing crisis: Just ask

In all the discussion about solving West Virginia’s jail staffing crisis, has anyone bothered to ask the jails’ staff what they need? 

Gov. Jim Justice has repeatedly called — though not pushed — for locality pay for Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation workers. Lawmakers balked at the idea and gave passing consideration to an across-the-board pay raise and a sign-on bonus for new recruits. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that offering higher salaries alone is not going to solve the jail system’s chronic understaffing problem. 

The crisis is statewide: The overall vacancy rate for corrections officers is 33%, but vacancy rates range from 30%-76% for individual facilities. Locality pay targeted to employees who live in areas with a higher cost of living, like Martinsburg, doesn’t do anything to alleviate the shortage in a “cheaper” place like Randolph County, especially when the prisons in both areas have the same vacancy rate (54%). 

As the “state of emergency” Justice declared wears on, it seems the problem isn’t just recruitment, but retention. What little staff remain are working more overtime than an individual can reasonably sustain. Burnout can happen in any profession when employees are overworked, but it happens even faster in intense and combative work environments.  

We can speculate that what jail employees need is not just higher pay, but also shorter work weeks (e.g., four 10-hour shifts instead of five 8-hour shifts), more paid time off (e.g., more paid sick and/or vacation days) and better access to mental health services, including counseling.  

But we don’t know for sure — and neither, apparently, do lawmakers. So here’s a novel idea: Why doesn’t someone ask jail employees what they need?  

The Department of Corrections should create and send out a survey asking current and recent former employees what they need to do their jobs and what they need to want to stay in their jobs.  

This is why we think it would be important to include recent former employees as well: There’s a reason they quit, and the reasons they give will likely provide insight into what must be done not only to increase recruitment, but retention.  

If the DOC sent out the survey by June 1, it would have a little over six months to compile and analyze the responses. It could then present its findings to the Legislature when lawmakers meet for the regular session in early January. If the DOC gets its results sooner, it could provide them to the relevant committee during one of the Legislature’s already scheduled interim sessions. (We still do not support the idea of calling a special session.) 

Instead of wasting time and energy speculating, legislators should ask jail employees what they need to get the job done. Then, the Legislature can put together a focused bill that addresses the problems at the root of the staffing crisis and finally bring an end to this state of emergency.