By David Gutman
Building a new prison in West Virginia is an absolute last resort, state officials said Thursday, but they did not rule it out as a possible remedy for the state’s overcrowded prison system.
Jim Rubinstein, state corrections commissioner, said West Virginia faces a crisis when it comes to prison overcrowding. Every bed is filled, and there are 1,700 to 1,800 prisoners being housed in regional jails that are meant for shorter term inmates who committed lesser crimes. The state’s prison population is growing faster than anywhere else in the nation and a new prison is estimated to cost between $150 and 200 million, with annual operating costs of $30 million.
A bill to address prison overcrowding fell apart on the last day of last year’s legislative session because of Republican opposition. That bill would have added beds to a supervised drug-treatment program and allowed judges to reduce or divert sentences for some drug offenders and parole and probation violators.
Corrections officials and lawmakers have debated the problem for decades, but those who spoke at The Associated Press’ annual Legislative Lookahead in South Charleston all agreed that prison crowding must be addressed.
“Growing prison population has reached a point where something has to be done this year,” Rubinstein said.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democratic House and Senate leaders and Sen. Corey Palumbo, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, all endorsed a recent study that proposed releasing prisoners six months early with supervision.
“That’s a good trade off to make,” Palumbo said. “These are people who are getting out anyway.”
Kanawha County Delegate Patrick Lane, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, agreed with supervised release but was hesitant about shortened sentences.
“We recognize there is a fiscal issue but we don’t want to just open the gates and let people who have been convicted and are serving a sentence be let out,” Lane said. “We think a furlough type program is dangerous.”
He said he is reluctant to change sentences that already have been imposed, and sees giving more lenient sentences to future prisoners as potentially unfair to those already in the system.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead also expressed concerns about releasing prisoners early and said he would not support implementing the report.
Approximately 80 percent of incarcerations in West Virginia are somehow drug-related, but neither Palumbo nor Lane saw the construction of a secure drug treatment facility as a likely alternative due to limited state funds.
Sen. Majority Leader Jeff Kessler said that the fuller prisons get, the less effective they become. He said that when prisons become like warehouses, things like drug treatment and GED programs that promote rehabilitation tend to fall by the wayside. That makes it more likely that prisoners end up returning to jail upon release.
West Virginia’s recidivism rate, the percent of prisoners who return to jail after release, is more than 28 percent. Rubinstein stressed that changes must be made to better prepare prisoners for when they are released and re-enter society.
“We’ve got facilities that are larger than the town I grew up in,” Rubinstein said. “They are cities in their own right. When 95 percent of these individuals are going to come back out into society, one of our main objectives should be to prepare them for successful re-entry.”
Tomblin also stressed the importance of lowering the rate of reoffenders, who are sent back to prison after their release.
“We need to talk about how we stop recidivism,” Tomblin said. “To make sure that when people are released from the prison system that they have the skills, the ability and the training to go back into society and become productive citizens.”