West Virginia’s jails and prisons are so full that some inmates are sleeping on the floor, and the state’s inmate population is expected to grow substantially through the end of the decade.
Officials don’t believe building more prisons will solve the problem. Instead, they want a new approach to corrections and rehabilitation.
“We’re at a crisis, we’re at a critical stage. We can’t understate that,” said state Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Joe Thornton. “We have no vacancy.”
And that means some inmates at the state’s 10 regional jails are sleeping on the floor.
“There are still a handful of inmates that don’t have a bunk,” Deputy Secretary Joe DeLong said.
DeLong said an additional 400 bunks have been ordered and they’ll be placed where there’s room.
“After those 400 bunks are installed, that literally will be it,” he said. “We’re literally out of space.”
The state’s regional jails are designed to hold the populations of those awaiting trial or serving a sentence of less than one year.
They also hold inmates who have been sentenced for felonies, but are waiting for a bed to open up in one of the state’s 14 Division of Corrections facilities.
“We really don’t have an overpopulation issue with the (regional) jails per se, is the ability to meet the population of the Division of Corrections inmates,” DeLong said.
According to Division of Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein, there are currently 6,849 inmates in the custody of the corrections division. Of those, about 5,100 have beds at either a correctional facility or work release program; around 1,700 are still lodged in regional jails waiting for a permanent space to open.
“Without that overflow, without those corrections inmates in the jails where they’re not intended to be anyways, the jails would not have overpopulation issues at all,” DeLong said.
West Virginia has the second fastest growing prison population in the country, according to a recent report from the state Division of Justice and Community Services.
The state’s corrections population has nearly doubled in the past decade, going from 3,870 inmates in 2000, to 6,849.
That population is expected to climb further, reaching 8,251 by 2015 and 9,732 by 2020, according to the report.
What’s driving the growth is an increase in non-violent offenders — those sent to jail for drug or property crimes.
Last year, 72.4 percent of all new inmates were sent to prison for non-violent offenses. The report projects that by 2015, more than half of the state’s inmates will be non-violent offenders.
“We’ve just kind of exploded in terms of the folks that are in our care and custody that are non-violent offenders,” Thornton said. “It’s just been such a shift.”
Officials say drug dependence is the driving factor for the surge.
“I feel that of 80-some percent of the inmates in our care or custody that either drug or alcohol have either directly or indirectly contributed to their criminal history,” Rubenstein said.
Former Gov. Joe Manchin commissioned a study several years ago to tackle the growing prison population. It produced 14 recommendations, 12 of which have already been adopted.
The remaining two — building a new 300-bed facility at St. Marys and a new 1,200-bed facility somewhere in the state — have yet to be adopted.
But even if the two new facilities were built, they would still not accommodate the projected growth in the inmate population.
That’s why officials are beginning to put more focus on things like community corrections, which include drug courts and day report centers, as alternatives to building new prisons.
“We know we can’t build ourselves out of this problem,” Thornton said. “If you can’t continue to put other mechanisms in place to prevent this — such as community corrections, criminal code revision, expansion of treatment of services in general — you’re just going to find the same problem.”
Rubenstein said the prison population tends to grow to fill whatever space is available.
“What history has shown is the old, ‘If you build it, they will come’ mentality takes place,” he said.
Drug courts and day report centers, which design specialized treatment and rehabilitation programs for each inmate, have just begun to expand in recent years.
Two years ago, there were approximately 1,500 people on community corrections programs across the state. There are now about 2,800 in programs covering 50 of the state’s 55 counties.
That saves the state the average cost of $25,000 a year for each person who would have been incarcerated.
Steve Canterbury, administrative director of the state Supreme Court, said drug courts and day report centers not only save more than just the direct costs of incarceration.
“We’re able to keep people out of the facilities, and if they have jobs and they continue to make a living for their families, you don’t have the secondary costs of the families — they don’t have to turn to welfare,” Canterbury said.
The target of the programs is to help members find housing and maintain employment, which have been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism — the technical term for re-offending.
Thornton said this is a “smart on crime” approach, as opposed to the mentality that’s been driving the growth of the prison population in recent years.
“For a long time, there’s been an approach of, ‘We’re going to be tough on crime, we’re going to get folks who are violating our laws off the street,’ ” Thornton said. “It’s the easy thing to do, but it may not be the best thing to do.”
The focus of drug courts and day report centers is to catch offenders early, before they graduate to more serious crimes requiring longer incarceration.
“We support these community corrections and day report centers 110 percent,” Rubenstein said.
“What community corrections has done, it has helped the county jail population where on the front end, that the individual can be sentenced on community corrections program instead of being sent to a jail and on per diem that the county is paying.”
The programs often times involve intensive substance abuse and behavioral therapy in concert with regular drug testing and community service.
“People think community corrections is a walk in the park — it’s not. It’s punishment,” said J. Norbert Federspiel, director of the Division of Justice and Community Services. “People are being forced to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, and that in effect is a type of punishment.”
But a lack of qualified behavioral, mental and substance abuse therapy providers has held back the success of the programs, Federspiel said.
“I think that if we had better or more available outpatient therapy for substance abuse and outpatient therapy for behavioral health issues, that we could solve some of these issues,” Federspiel said.
“If a person gets referred to substance abuse treatment but has to wait 6 months for an opening because there’s a waiting list . . . that’s a lot of time that the person is untreated and the person is likely to recidivate.”
He said the state lawmakers should open up some spending to help get those kinds of programs off the ground.
“You either spend the money in building another prison, or you spend it in community corrections and behavioral services,” Federspiel said.
“In the long-term, you’re going to spend less if you invest in the community corrections and in the other services than if you build a prison and pay for the prisoners in the long term.”
Daily Mail file photo
The Western Regional Jail in Barboursville opened in 2003 and was designed with a capacity of 400 inmates. According to a recent report, the state has the second fastest growing prison population.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.
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