West Virginia’s corrections officers plan to follow the lead of the state’s teachers today and lobby the Legislature for a larger pay increase than what Gov. Joe Manchin has proposed.

The governor has asked for a $1,000 across-the-board raise plus incentives for new hires that together would cost $2.2 million the first year. The Division of Corrections has around 200 employees.

But officers have been pushing for a $5,000 raise, while the more than 1,500 officers and other staffers at the state’s regional jails and Division of Juvenile Services want a permanent pay increase as well.

“We would be willing to look at a multiyear approach,” said Elaine Harris of the Communications Workers of America, which advocates for workers in all three agencies. “If they could do $3,000 the first year, and then $1,000 a year for two years, that would get us there.”

Harris estimated that West Virginia’s average corrections salary falls just above $23,000 a year, while the national average is $26,000. Federal corrections officers have an average salary of $32,000, she added.

Though Monday is Corrections Day at the Legislature, Harris does not expect the throng seen when teachers rallied at the Capitol earlier this session. The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday had closed public schools that day.

“Our numbers will be smaller because our people can’t just leave,” Harris noted.

That situation helps underscore the problem. Holding one of the most dangerous public jobs in West Virginia, the state’s corrections officers have seen turnover in their ranks nearly double between 2000 and 2005, the latest year for available figures.

Nearly one in five officers statewide quit in 2005. Turnover at the state’s main maximum security prison at Mount Olive hit 35 percent that year.

As a result, West Virginia spends around $3 million a year on turnover-related costs. More than half that amount funds overtime for staffers who must work extra shifts to cover vacant posts, state corrections officials reported last year.

At the same time, the state has added nearly 1,100 inmates to its prison system, for a total of more than 5,300. Though it still has the 11th-lowest inmate population, it reported the second-fastest growth rate between 1995 and 2005. West Virginia also has a low ratio of corrections officers per state resident. At least 32 states have a higher staffing ratio.

The state is losing officers to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which has opened new facilities in Preston and Gilmer counties since 2003, and to all of its neighbors except perhaps Kentucky. That state has suffered a higher turnover rate, and ranked last in a 2005 survey of corrections pay in 14 southeastern states, Harris said. West Virginia ranked 13th.

Harris blames the salary gap for Jeffery Alan Wroten’s decision to take a post at Maryland’s Roxbury Correctional Institution. The 44-year-old father of five had been an officer at Mount Olive and then at a state facility in the Eastern Panhandle before crossing the border.

Wroten, of Martinsburg, was fatally wounded with own gun while guarding a hospitalized inmate in January 2006. The inmate awaits trail in his murder.

“He went over to make more money,” Harris said. “That was the reason.”

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