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West Virginia officials defend correctional system improvements amid federal lawsuits

13 Dec 2023, Jail News, by

West Virginia officials claim a turnaround in the state’s prison conditions, despite alleged issues and lawsuits.

West Virginia officials defend correctional system improvements amid federal lawsuits - Inmate Lookup

In a report to the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority in West Virginia on Tuesday, officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) asserted that despite ongoing federal lawsuits, the conditions within the state’s correctional system have improved.

Mark Sorsaia, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security overseeing the DCR, addressed the committee, acknowledging recent challenges and lawsuits but contending that the state’s 10 juvenile centers, 11 prisons, three work-release sites, and 10 regional jails have never been in better condition.

Sorsaia emphasized that structural issues, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions mentioned in the recent federal class action lawsuits no longer exist.

The state is currently in the process of settling a federal class action lawsuit related to conditions at the Southern Regional Jail near Beckley. This $4 million settlement follows allegations of inhuman living conditions and overcrowding filed by two inmates in 2022.

The proposed settlement will be distributed among roughly 9,200 eligible inmates incarcerated at the Southern Regional Jail between September 22, 2020, and the finalized settlement date. Negotiations for settlement details are ongoing and require approval from the federal judge overseeing the case.

The settlement followed U.S. Magistrate Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn’s 39-page ruling in favor of SJR inmates’ demand for default judgment against the state. Aboulhosn accused DCR officials of destroying emails and electronic documents.

In addition to the Southern Regional Jail lawsuit, an ongoing federal lawsuit, filed in August, targets the entire state correctional system. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, accuses the state of overcrowding, understaffing, and delayed maintenance issues. Inmates seek a favorable ruling and an order compelling the state to allocate no less than $330 million for staffing and maintenance through available funds or appropriations bills by January 2024.

DCR Commissioner William Marshall reported on Tuesday that the regional jail system, spanning 10 facilities, is 151 beds over capacity; however, some jails are now under total capacity. The North Central Regional Jail in Doddridge County exceeds capacity by 201 beds. The state prison system is at an appropriate capacity.

Sorsaia expressed satisfaction, noting they successfully addressed previous challenges. He acknowledged having encountered issues and voiced confidence in their strategy. Sorsaia emphasized ongoing efforts in infrastructure improvement, sewage, plumbing, and locks, recognizing it as a gradual process but asserting a positive beginning.

Governor Justice and the Legislature allocated $60 million for deferred maintenance in the current fiscal year budget, with ongoing projects such as the repair of over 100 prison doors.

Correctional officer vacancies were reduced to 883 from last month’s 951 and a peak of 1,067 a year ago. Since May, six classes of officers have graduated from the correctional academy, with 52 cadets of the 77th class set to graduate on Dec. 22. The next class begins in the new year.

New hires, including the incoming class, total 280 since May. Over 225 contacts were made with individuals interested in correctional careers, resulting in 126 job offers at various events.

Following a special legislative session in August, Justice endorsed six corrections bills, among them Senate Bill 1005, allocating $21.1 million to enhance the starting pay and modify pay scales for correctional officers. Additionally, Senate Bills 1003 and 1004 were signed, allocating nearly $6 million for one-time bonuses for support staff in the correctional system, which began in October.

West Virginia National Guard personnel are still stationed at state facilities to help with shortages as the state continues to operate under a second state of emergency due to vacancies in the prison system.