By Vicki Smith
MOUNT OLIVE —
In a housing pod at West Virginia’s only maximum-security prison, two things separate a lone correctional officer from 72 inmates: a canister of pepper spray and a line of red tape on the floor.
Neither is a real deterrent. This spring, the young blond officer at the desk was slashed and stabbed by an inmate who melted a razor blade into a plastic pen cap. The guard was back on duty at the Mount Olive Correctional Center within weeks.
Attacks like that have more than doubled in the state’s correctional facilities in the past five years, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press. Both administrators and guards expect the numbers to rise as the state’s chronically overcrowded prisons and jails continue to swell with new inmates.
The number of inmate-on-inmate attacks in state prisons surged from 64 in 2007 to 148 last year, even though half the population was in for a nonviolent offense. In the same period, Division of Corrections figures show the number of assaults on prison employees shot up from 47 to 101.
“It’s mostly luck no one has been killed,” said former Mount Olive Correctional Complex guard Lawrence Pettey, a 16-year veteran of the corrections system who quit in January. “Inmates don’t generally set out to kill you, but on any given day, you don’t know what can happen.”
In the 10 regional jails, inmate-on-inmate assaults jumped nearly 25 percent between 2007 and 2011, from 449 to 612. Figures provided by the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority showed only one positive trend: Assaults on staff fell slightly but steadily, from 261 to 221.
But that’s still an average of more than four assaults a week and the authority’s director of operations, Joe Lopez, expects to see both figures rise.
“I definitely don’t see them going down,” he said.
West Virginia’s prison population has quadrupled since 1990 to more than 6,900 inmates. With every bed full, about 1,800 felons — nearly a third of them convicted of killings, sexual assaults and other violent crimes — must serve at least parts of their sentences in regional jails.
So a jail system designed to hold 2,900 inmates is now nearing 5,000.
After decades of political wrangling and assuming tough-on-crime postures, legislators appear to have realized they can no longer ignore the overcrowding crisis. They’ve united behind a new, comprehensive study of the state’s criminal justice system in hopes of finding common ground and a long-term solution.
But corrections professionals have seen studies before, so no one expects a quick fix.
“It’s a problem that wasn’t created overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight,” Lopez said.
At South Central Regional Jail in Charleston, recovering meth addict William Morris was among the inmates forced to triple-bunk, with one always sleeping on the floor. The tight confines created tension, he said, and sleeping positions were settled by seniority or force.
“In other pods, you would see people sleeping under the stairs and on the way to the shower,” said Morris, who’s now doing time at Pruntytown Correctional Center for possession of a stolen vehicle — a crime he says was driven by his drug addiction.
Today, he has a wood-frame bed and shares an 8-by-12-foot room with only one person in the residential substance abuse treatment center at Pruntytown.
“This is by far the best facility,” Morris said.
At North Central Regional Jail in Greenwood, 32 men share one television and inmates take their meal trays to the stairs because there aren’t enough tables or seats.
“You never know when it’s going to happen,” said Administrator George Trent who was assaulted recently, then lost his chief corrections officer for a few weeks after an inmate gave him a concussion.
Sometimes, staff is attacked. Often, they’re inadvertently injured as they break up a fight.
Fights used to happen every few weeks, Trent said. Now, in a jail built for 400 inmates and closing in on the 700 mark, they occur every few days.
Some inmates are suicidal. Some are mentally ill or pretending to be. Many are on drugs, addicted to everything from meth and painkillers to hallucinogenic bath salts. Jails don’t have recreation yards, so they’re confined to a pod, and they’re often cranky.
There is no single reason for the surge in assaults.
Rather, it’s the result of intertwined problems: the unrelenting flow of increasingly violent and defiant prisoners, paired with overworked guards who are often inexperienced because of chronically high turnover rates and staff shortages.
Starting salaries of just $22,500 quickly drive corrections officers into better-paying jobs with the federal Bureau of Prisons or the coal mining and gas drilling industries. The ones who stay often worry whether they’ll leave under their own power.
Lt. Nate Kendrick has a scar on his brow, thanks to a Mount Olive inmate who hit him in the face with his handcuffs. So, why go back?
“There’s a thin line between dedication and stupidity,” he joked.
Kendrick joined corrections eight years ago, abandoning a job filling vending machines so he could travel less and be home every night with his wife and three sons, ages 5, 10 and 12.
Besides better pay, he’d like to see a plan allowing correctional officers to retire with benefits after 20 years of service.
“Twenty years,” he said, “is a long time in corrections.”