Adding counselors preferable to sending inmates out of state

December 20, 2013

As West Virginia officials weigh further steps to deal with overcrowded prisons and jails, they should give strong consideration to a proposal floated to legislators last week. It could well provide a more suitable alternative to another option now being pursued — placing some of the state’s inmates in an out-of-state prison run by a private corporation.

The plan spelled out a week ago to members of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jails and Corrections involves expanding programming to state inmates now being held in the state’s regional jails so that they can more quickly become eligible for parole. The proposal put forth by John Lopez, chief of operations for the state’s Regional Jail Authority, calls for hiring one to two additional full-time counselors at each of the 10 regional jails. The price tag for doing that would be about $700,000 a year for salaries and benefits, he said.

The regional jails now house about 1,300 Division of Corrections inmates that should be in the state-run prisons, but those prisons are already beyond capacity. One drawback of that situation is that the regional jails now do not offer adequate programming that could make those inmates eligible for parole consideration, so that slows the process of reducing inmate populations.

Adding the counselors could mean adding the programs — on such topics as domestic violence, life skills, anger management, and alcohol and substance abuse — that are needed.

Taking such a step should help speed up the parole process for many inmates, and possibly reduce the state’s overall inmate population, particularly at the regional jails. And it could keep West Virginia’s inmates housed within the state’s borders — unlike another plan being considered by the Division of Corrections.

Corrections officials earlier this year sought bids from contractors to house up to 400 of the state’s inmates at an out-of-state prison.

Even though the cost of that plan isn’t known yet, it’s unlikely to be a less expensive option than Lopez’s plan to hire more counselors. State officials say incarcerating an inmate can cost up to $25,000 a year. Even if Corrections Corporation of America’s bid comes in at half that cost per inmate, the sum would be $5 million a year.

At this point, the state is making headway on its efforts to reduce its prison and jail population, giving encouragement to officials that expensive steps such as building a new prison won’t be necessary. We think the same thinking should be applied before sending prisoners out of state.

The alternative proposed by the Regional Jail Authority appears to be a better option overall.

—The Herald Dispatch