Jail and prison overcrowding

Martha SparksSociety Editor

September 26, 2012

A recent incident at the Western Regional Jail in Barboursville is another reminder that the potential for a “crisis of disturbing proportions” predicted a decade ago by the state’s Supreme Court still hangs over West Virginia.

Details of what happened at the jail are scant. But a criminal complaint says that four convicted felons, all who should be in a state prison rather than a regional jail if there was room for them, tattooed another inmate against his will. The victim told an investigator they held him down and threatened to beat him if he moved, according to the complaint. The forced tattoos included a phrase that could be interpreted as derogatory and the image of a penis on the victim’s lower back.

While this alleged incident may not seem as serious as one inmate killing another, for example, it actually raises more doubts about how officers can possibly keep track of all the inmates packed into both the state’s prisons and the 10 regional jails. While one inmate could kill another within a matter of seconds with a weapon, how long did it take the four suspects in the alleged tattooing incident to hold down the victim and mark him up without the attack being noticed?

The incident suggests that there are simply too many inmates for officers to monitor adequately.

The number of people convicted of felonies and sentenced to state corrections facilities has quadrupled since 1990, to nearly 7,000. That’s left the state’s prisons at capacity, forcing around 1,800 convicted felons to be lodged in regional jails. The jails were designed to hold a total of 2,900 inmates, but now have about 4,750, according to state officials. …

As the regional jails have become more populated, however, the staffing has not kept up. The jails’ inmate population continues to grow year after year, but the number of people employed by the state’s Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority is below what it was in 2006, according to state auditor’s annual reports. …

Now, the state is embarking on another study of the dilemma, seeking recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Project overseen by the Council of State Governments. That group has had success in other states.

But any progress in West Virginia will depend largely on whether the state’s decision makers listen and act. There’s been very little of that in the past 10 years. Maybe this time will be different.

Distributed by The Associated Press