West Virginia’s 10 regional jails were built as part of a master plan by the state to replace aging and overcrowded county jails. The plan was born in the wake of an audit in the 1980s by the U.S. Department of Justice that revealed there was only one jail in West Virginia that met federal operational standards. The last one was completed about 15 years ago.
Fast forward to December 2019, and the regional jail system has many of the same problems that the old county jails had.
The state’s 10 regional jails were built to house 5,102 inmates. As of last month, about 7,000 people were housed in them. More than half had yet to be convicted of a crime.
Betsy Jividen, commissioner of the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the Legislative Joint Judiciary Committee last month that every regional jail in the state is “bursting at the seams,” according to The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
As the saying goes, what was old is new again. We have the regional jail system because counties were unable to maintain local jails that met federal standards. Regional jails are facing the same problems the county jails did when they were put out of business, and for the same reason.
At last month’s meeting, Lida Shepherd of the American Friends Service Committee asked legislators to reconsider a bill from this year’s legislative session that would have allowed people charged with certain nonviolent misdemeanors to be released from jail on a personal recognizance bond.
“Historically, bail is supposed to be a way of ensuring people charged with crimes will appear in court,” Shepherd said. “In reality, bail is routinely set very, very high with the result that people with financial means are able to post bond, be with their families, retain their jobs and appear in court more prepared, and those without financial means languish in jail at a huge cost to taxpayers.”
House of Delegates Judiciary Committee counsel Brian Casto told the committee the preference would be to address laws that affect the court and incarceration processes. Building a new 1,200-bed jail would be “the atomic bomb” and “last resort” solution for overcrowding, he said.
Also during the meeting, Jividen mentioned deteriorating infrastructure of some of the overcrowded facilities. The regional jail system has at least $193 million in unfunded maintenance issues, including “incredible” sewage issues that are compounded by overcrowding, she said.
“This is getting worse instead of better,” Jividen said.
It looks like the governor and the Legislature will have to ask themselves how much money they want to spend on the regional jail system — not just overcrowding, but pay rates and other issues that affect staffing and employee turnover.
It’s not a problem they will want to address in an election year. Jail inmates have no huge voting bloc politicians can count on, unlike coal miners and teachers. Maybe they will address it. They may punt it to 2021.
Meanwhile, local prosecutors and judges must also decide whether too many people are being held in regional jails while awaiting trial. It can take weeks or months between the time a person is arrested and the time the person is found guilty or innocent.
Whether on the local or state levels, or maybe both, it looks like conditions at the regional jails will have to be addressed, and soon.