CHARLESTON, W. Va. — West Virginia lawmakers learned that an all-time high of 1,700 people sentenced to prison remain in jails because of a lack of bed space at state Division of Corrections facilities, and that number is projected to nearly double to 3,200 in five years.
The state's prison or prison-bound population, including those awaiting transfers from jails, topped 6,880 in April. The state estimates that those numbers will swell to 8,500 in 2016 and then to 9,700 by the end of 2020.
Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin isn't ruling out adding a new prison to West Virginia's corrections system, but he and other officials question whether the state can build its way out of its overcrowding crisis.
Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told one House-Senate interim committee that the state’s facilities are full, the regional jails are overcrowded and the inmate population continues to grow.
West Virginia's imprisonment rate per resident ranks 37th among the states, on par with its position for overall population, according to 2010 figures from the Pew Center on the States. But the Pew report also found West Virginia with the second fastest growing inmate population.
Accelerated parole was among the 14 options recommended by a 2009 study of inmate overcrowding commissioned by then Gov. Joe Manchin. The report also called for a greater focus on substance abuse offenders. Rubenstein mentioned that his agency is increasing the amount of beds in treatment facilities within the prisons, but added that this step can help only so much.
Budget concerns prompted state officials to hold off considering that step in the wake of the study's release. Rubenstein estimated last week that a new prison would cost $120 million to $200 million to build.
The state has begun expanding the St. Mary’s Correctional Center, as recommended by the study. But Rubenstein noted that the 300 new beds there, when combined with the new prison, would not solve the jail backlog.
There are a large number of inmates who remain in regional jails, said Rubenstein. What is more likely to help is a wide-ranging approach that embraces more of the study's recommendations, he told lawmakers.
Any plan to build a new prison must first involve the Legislature as well as industry experts.
Among the study's other proposals, the state has also increased funding for community-based alternatives to prison, parole officers and in-prison classes, counseling and services aimed at reducing recidivism. Rubenstein said other states have seen success after revisiting their criminal statutes and sentencing laws — steps also recommended by the 2009 study.