CHARLESTON, W. Va. — A state commission created to investigate overcrowding at West Virginia prisons issued several recommendations to solve the problem, including construction of a new medium-security prison.
The cornerstone of recommendations for new construction submitted to Gov. Joe Manchin is a 1,200-cell, medium-security prison that would cost $100 million to $200 million. The location for the proposed prison is yet to be determined.
Other recommendations in the 56-page report include building a network for drug rehabilitation, including adding more than 35 health and substance abuse rehabilitation centers. New construction would also include four additional 80-bed work-release centers for low-risk inmates transitioning back to community life, a special-needs unit for elderly and physically handicapped prisoners, and a 300-bed addition to Saint Marys Correctional Center in St. Marys.
“We need to move fast” was the consensus of the 30-member Governor’s Commission on Prison Overcrowding, says Norbert Federspiel, director of the Division of Criminal Justice Services and a member of the commission. “We know that it takes time to build prisons and it takes time to acquire properties. We know that the number of offenders is growing daily…and we need to do something to ease the pressure quickly.”
The state is over capacity by 1,500 inmates who are housed in 10 regional jails throughout the state. By 2012, that number could reach 3,500 inmates. The state has a total of 5,015 beds available for inmates.
The commission, which was established through an executive order and includes representatives from the court system, government, law enforcement and the West Virginia Council of Churches, was organized last year with the goal of reviewing best practices in other states and needs that have to be addressed in West Virginia, as well as developing “a solution to prevent us from being in a situation that would be really difficult to overcome,” says Matt Turner, spokesman for the governor.
Recommendations were based on three objectives to reduce statewide populations: divert people to alternative sanctions, including community correctional programs and day report centers; shorten sentences; and build new facilities, including rehabilitation centers and a prison.
“A simple analysis of the West Virginia prison overcrowding problem is there are too many offenders being sentenced to institutional correctional services and too few beds or cells in the Division of Corrections’ facilities,” according to the report.
Other aspects of the report include the development of a risk-needs assessment of prisoners, with the intention of diverting prisoners that pose a low risk to community correctional programs, increasing the number of parole officers to allow more inmates to return to the community quicker, and reviewing the West Virginia criminal code to reduce the length of sentences for certain offenses.
“It’s a comprehensive review,” Federspiel says. “The commission felt it couldn’t emphasize one recommendation over the other.”
The law school at West Virginia University has already begun a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal codes.
Recommendations with immediate costs may have to wait, Turner says, but the governor is on board with the commission’s proposals.
“He trusts the recommendations of this group,” Turner says.