Gov. Jim Justice signs the recently-passed corrections bills into law in Beckley. Photo courtesy the Governor's Office.

Two weeks ago, lawmakers gathered in Charleston to finalize Gov. Jim Justice’s plan to funnel $21 million to increase salaries for corrections officers and address the growing crisis with West Virginia’s dangerous jails and prisons.

Earlier this year, lawmakers also put $75 million towards long overdue repairs within the system, an amount the governor said he’s going to slightly increase.

On the same day, just an hour’s drive away in Beckley, a federal lawsuit was filed that made it clear the new money is a drop in the bucket of what is needed to fill large staff vacancies and complete important repairs at the state’s jails and prisons. 

In the lawsuit filed on behalf of current and former inmates, officials who run or previously ran West Virginia’s jails and prisons system said that at least another $39 million is needed to get enough people working the cell blocks and at least $150 million is required to make those cell blocks habitable. 

The problem isn’t new — back in 1946, the West Virginia Supreme Court recommended a regional jail system because county lockups had become “totally unfit for human habitation,” according to the suit. It took until 1985 before the Legislature did anything about it and another 20 years for the state to completely switch over to regional jails, the suit states. 

Even Moundsville, the very first state prison, was taken to task in the early 1980s when a county judge found the conditions unconstitutional, per the suit. 

The current staffing and facility issues have been going on for at least a decade, and state officials running the system said they have repeatedly told lawmakers and the governor about the dire needs.

“Prior to every legislative session, we have a meeting with the budget office,” said then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeff Sandy in a deposition earlier this year. “We provide them with our needs.”

“We told them,” he added.

Officer vacancies are a long-standing issue

With a little more than 700 vacancies in correctional officer positions, prison commissioner Billy Marshall told lawmakers this month that one jail in the Eastern Panhandle was “operating on smoke and mirrors” with a dozen officers working the floor, assisted by National Guard and civilian employees. 

The raise, which would jump starting pay from $35,000 for new officers to $40,000 (about a $4 an hour raise), should help fill the ranks, according to Marshall. By an officer’s third year, they would top out at $48,000.

This isn’t the first-time correctional officers have had their pay increased; in 2017, base salary was hovering around the poverty line, at $24,000 a year. The following year, lawmakers raised the starting pay to $32,000 – officers later received a few small raises alongside other state employees. 

Sen. Jason Barrett, R-Berkeley, during the recent legislative session. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Sen. Jason Barrett, a Republican from Berkeley County who sits on the jails and prison oversight and finance committees, said the latest bump doesn’t put the system “right where we need to be or want to be.” 

He said this session was more or less an attempt to fill vacancies among low-rung officers, often in their first couple of years, who are day-in and day-out working the floor. Prison officials told lawmakers this month these workers account for 95% of vacancies. 

“The way the system is currently set up, it’s capped out for those groups, so the only option they have is either to move into an administrative role or go find another job,” Barrett said. 

In order to help fill the hole, Justice called out roughly 350 National Guard personnel to work the floor in August 2022. Marshall said the stop gap is costing the state more than filling the vacancies and raises across the board. 

Guardsmen working jails aren’t new either — a little more than 100 worked at 18 facilities in 2018. 

Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler, who chairs the House Jails and Prisons Committee, said the funding package also allows facilities with high vacancies to pay an additional $5,000 a year. Kelly said this will target border counties, such as in the Eastern Panhandle, where nearby Maryland prisons offer starting pay at $10,000 more than West Virginia’s new pay.

One group left largely out of the mix are support staff, such as counselors, cooks and maintenance employees. While they will get two bonuses, Elaine Harris, representative for the Communication Workers of America District 213 which represents corrections workers, said that’s not nearly enough. 

“The bonuses for support staff will help, but we all know that bonus will get spent immediately on things they need,” she said. 

Due to the chronic staffing shortage, support staff are asked from time-to-time to work the floor as an officer for a shift. For Kenny Matthews, who served time for the better part of a decade in West Virginia, that means inmates stay locked up longer. 

“I got paroled in February 2020, but my institution parole officer had to work the floor and couldn’t get my home plan finished to be released until April,” he said. “That happens all the time.” 

The staffing shortages can also increase the potential for violence — while serving at Mt. Olive, the state’s maximum security prison, Matthews said 60 to 70 men were kept in the same housing unit. 

“Rec time was a crapshoot,” he said. “If there’s not enough staff to let guys out to take a shower, go work out or go to their educational program, that frustration builds, that anger builds and that leads to violence.”  

Prisons and jails still need work 

Gov. Jim Justice displays the signed corrections bills in Beckley. Photo courtesy the Governor’s Office.

The physical state of prisons also creates unsafe conditions — Matthews recalled seeing an officer at a regional jail lock himself inside a room, requiring inmates and guards to pull open the door to cut him loose. 

Stuck doors are one thing, but Matthews said cell doors that don’t lock at all can lead to assaults. 

Annual funding requests from corrections officials to the governor and lawmakers over the last few years paint a dire picture of the system.

The top priority for this year was replacing locks and doors and fences. At two prisons in the northern part of the state, officials asked for a couple million dollars to repair fences that are threatened by hill slips – when a land starts gradually falling off a hill – and rust. 

In Randolph County, the Huttonsville Correctional Center needs a sprinkler system to  comply with state code — in the most recent funding request, the division said the prison was facing fines from the fire marshal’s office. 

Down the road in Pocahontas County, the Denmar Correctional Center has needed elevators dating back to at least 2019 — the prison is four stories tall and one request stated handicapped prisoners must walk up stairs. Like Huttonsville, it too needs a sprinkler system because the heads are painted over. 

Right off the Ohio River in Mason County, the state’s women’s prison needs a heating and cooling unit as well as a “lightning suppression system” so the facility’s electronics can still work after being struck in thunderstorms. According to its request, this issue dates back to 2006. 

“They’re not asking for money. They’re just asking for better conditions.”

Stephen New, a lawyer suing to fix living conditions in jails and prisons.

The federal lawsuit filed earlier this month seeks for a judge to compel the state to significantly increase funding to fix the facilities. 

While both Justice and Marshall have stated the lawsuit is “just lawyers taking advantage of a situation,” attorney Stephen New, who filed the lawsuit, said no one is looking for a pay out. 

“They’re not asking for money,” he said. “They’re just asking for better conditions.”

The lawsuit pegs the division’s list of repairs at $277 million as of April 2022, about in line with the $259 million cited in the fiscal year 2024 budget proposal

Matthews said it’s just half measures. 

“Look, they put up about $100 million — that’s only a third of the bill,” he said. “You want to know what happens if I pay a third of my bills? I end up homeless. But the DCR can just keep going on.” 

Gov. Jim Justice addresses a group of corrections officers in Beckley before signing several bills into law. Photo courtesy the Governor’s Office.

Last week, Justice sat in a chair underneath a canopy tent, flanked by Babydog, the current Homeland Security Secretary Mark Sorsaia and Commissioner Marshall. 

After a long winded spiel about getting his daddy’s shotgun fixed, Justice was ready to sign off the pay raise and other corrections bills — but the sun canopy was wreaking havoc on the photo op. So Marshall started moving the desk out into the sunlight when a uniformed officer said, “Why don’t we just move the tent?” 

“That wasn’t our greatest moment there,” Justice said. 

Another official joked, “Give that man a raise.” 

After inking the bill, Justice, known for pumping up every piece of legislation he signs, said this wouldn’t be the silver bullet for corrections. 

“Will this fix everything?” he asked. “Maybe not. Maybe not.”

Henry Culvyhouse is a seasoned journalist who has served at small town dailies in West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky. He is a native of Inwood, West Virginia, where he graduated from Musselman...