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State’s jails still lack staff

CHARLESTON — House and Senate leaders along with the governor’s office have been meeting in recent weeks, working toward a possible solution to the problem of worker vacancy rates in the state’s jails and prisons.

Senate President Craig Blair said the meetings, the latest of which took place last Thursday, have been productive.

“These meetings have been nothing short of excellent where everybody is coming together and working holistically on fixing corrections,” Blair said last week on MetroNews “Talkline.” “It’s a legacy issue that we’ve had before us and we’re going in, taking a deep dive and getting it right.”

Blair would like to have an agreement that can go before state lawmakers in a special session Gov. Jim Justice may decide to call when state lawmakers meet for monthly interim committee meetings Aug. 6-8.

“Unless we can’t get an agreement,” Blair said. “If there’s no agreement between the House and the Senate and governor’s office, then you won’t see it happening. Then that will get kicked down the road for another month to September.”

But Blair said he’s “anticipating an agreement.”

Officials with the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation gave their latest vacancy rate update to lawmakers in May. The agency had 1,040 vacancies across the system with officials describing particularly high rates at eight locations.

“We currently have abnormally high correctional officer vacancy rates at multiple facilities,” Brad Douglass, executive officer of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told lawmakers in a May 8 meeting.

The overall vacancy rate for corrections officers, they said, is 33%. And the overall vacancy rate for all staff in the system is a little less than 30%.

Justice, who declared a state of emergency last August and put 300 National Guard members in the jails and prisons to help, acknowledged during last week’s media briefing that meetings are taking place. He said they are making “headway.”

“But we need to make someway, somehow, more significant headway,” Justice said.

The holistic approach Blair mentioned could include pay raises, locality pay or reclassifying correctional officers to positions closer to a state police trooper.

Justice has previously supported a pay raise and did so again in comments he made last week.

“We need to do some kind of locality pay. We need to do something, absolutely something to really move the needle,” he said.

House of Delegates Health Committee Chair Amy Summers, R-Taylor, supported a special session to deal with corrections in a Twitter post last week. She tweeted, the special session “MUST include salary adjustments to corrections staff. Only 80 officers are on staff at Mt. Olive, which requires 220 to be safe. This is a public safety emergency!”

Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said it’s vital that something be done.

“It’s an area of the state in which we haven’t paid our due diligence to,” he said. “That’s not just the legislative branch but it’s everyone involved because that’s an administration function in administrating that.”

Justice, who said his administration floated two previous plans with no success, said he’ll put the issue on a special session “in the next 10 minutes” if there’s an agreement.

“But there’s no point in calling a special session, spending your money for two or three days or a week or whatever it may be, listen to 15 different solutions and go nowhere. We don’t need that,” Justice said. “We’ve got to come to an agreement and we’re working on it. There are good folks in the legislature but we’ve got to get to an agreement on this. This is silly.”

There’s already indication that Justice will call a special session for highway funding during the August meetings.