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Commissioner says emergency status for jails staffing could wind down soon

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s corrections commissioner has expressed optimism about progress in recruiting and retaining personnel.

Thursday, a delegate asked when state officials will be confident enough to end a state of emergency with jails staffing that went into place in August 2022.

“Do we have any hope of getting the emergency light turned off at the Capitol?” Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, asked during a meeting of the House Jails and Prisons Committee.

Corrections Commissioner Billy Marshall agreed that would be symbolically important to demonstrate the state has made progress.

“That’s been one of my goals from day one to have that light turned off. Until that light’s turned off, I don’t feel like we’ve really gotten there yet,” said Marshall, who testified before the committee for a little less than an hour.

Gov. Jim Justice issued a state of emergency Aug. 11, 2022, to address critical staffing shortages at correctional facilities in West Virginia. The declaration allowed facilities to bring in National Guard personnel to provide support roles at jails and prisons.

An emergency light atop the state Capitol building has marked the continued status.

In his opening remarks to delegates Thursday, Marshall pointed toward the possibility of bringing the direct support by National Guard personnel to an end by spring.

“We’re continuing to draw down on the National Guard, which has been a tremendous savings for us going forward,” Marshall said. “We’re hopeful by the by the end of April, early part of May, that we’ll be able to have all the National Guard drawn out of our facilities.”

West Virginia’s jails have also been under scrutiny over conditions and because of a number of deaths. The most recent death was reported Friday when a 19-year-old woman incarcerated at Southern Regional Jail was found “injured and unconscious in her cell.”

Delegate Hollis Lewis, D-Kanawha, asked again Thursday about conditions in the jails.

“What are we doing overall to not have these situations?” Lewis asked.

Marshall responded by expressing concern but also by saying there are limits to what can be done.

“I would love to be able to tell you that we could eliminate all of the deaths in our jails — I’d love to be able to tell you that, but it would be too naive. It wouldn’t be accurate for me to say that,” Marshall said.

“The unfortunate situation is that we get some inmates at their sickest and their worst,” he said describing some incarcerated people who struggle with drug addiction or poverty.

“And it’s our responsibility to try to make sure they’re taken care of when they’re in there. I’ll never stand for anybody mistreating inmates or any subordinate officer. I’ll never stand for it. I try to make sure we give these individuals the very best care we have, but when they come to us, 99% of the time it’s the worst day of their life.”

He concluded, “Our goal is to prevent every death or every incident in our facilities.”

Lewis followed up by asking whether specific additional actions could be taken at Southern Regional Jail “because that seems to be the heart of the issues and the heart of the problems where these unfortunate and tragic incidents are.”

Marshall responded that new leadership at that jail has been working to improve on suicide prevention watches. He also described attempts to prevent illegal drugs from getting into the facility.

“Unfortunately sometimes it does get in,” Marshall said of drugs. “Sometimes the inmates will use it, and sometimes they overdose and bad things happen. We are being very, very proactive there — not just at Southern, but all of our jails and prisons. So my goal would be to never have a death in our facilities, never have an incident in our facilities.

“I just don’t know that that’s achievable, but we’re certainly going to try.”