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Officials probing alleged jail abuses

Jail
Nov. 28, 2012 @ 12:02 AM

BARBOURSVILLE -- State officials insist operations are under control at the Western Regional Jail, even though 15 correctional officers have been suspended without pay or are facing such punishment.

Most of the suspensions stem from two incidents in which 11 officers are accused of either using excessive force against inmates or covering up the alleged abuse. One inmate received broken ribs, a collapsed lung and broken vertebrae.

Four other officers are accused of taking tobacco or cell phones into secured areas of the Barboursville jail. Such items are considered contraband.

Joe Delong, executive director of the state's Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, told lawmakers Monday his agency was investigating to see if a "buddy system" among guards might have led to a culture of "see nothing, hear nothing, record nothing."

"If that cultural challenge exists, we will take correcting that as seriously as we take individual discipline for those directly involved," he said Tuesday. "I'm not going to allow for an environment to take place that could endanger our good working staff."

Delong's comments on Monday came during a legislative oversight committee's interim meeting in Charleston.

Del. Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, sits on that committee and heard Monday's testimony. He said it renewed his concern about the impact of overcrowding in the state's regional jail system.

The Barboursville jail sits just across Interstate 64 from Morgan's district. On Tuesday, the facility designed to hold 400 inmates was housing approximately 645.

"(It) certainly tends to make an atmosphere that would be a little more explosive, if you would, than one where inmates were not triple bunked and that sort of thing," Morgan said.

Delong acknowledged overcrowding presents challenges at each of the state's 10 regional jails, but he said that reality does not excuse inappropriate activity, unprofessionalism or policy violations.

Delong promised lawmakers "swift action," and repeated that vow Tuesday. He said from a leadership standpoint, everybody from local jail management to his office is responsible for what happens with the individual jails.

Jail Administrator Mike Clark joined Delong in acknowledging the incidents place added strain upon Western Regional's remaining officers, who already are forced to work mandatory overtime due to staffing shortages statewide.

The most recent suspensions account for approximately 15 percent of Clark's full allocation of 102 correctional officers. He cited security issues in declining comment when asked to specify the number of officers currently on staff.

"From the outward appearance, it looks terrible," he said. "It's an isolated case ... I do not tolerate it. The authority doesn't tolerate it. That's the reason people are being suspended."

The two excessive force incidents happened within the past 30 days. Seven correctional officers were implicated in one incident, while four are linked to the other, Clark said.

One inmate was hospitalized with broken ribs, a collapsed lung and broken vertebrae. The other inmate's injuries were less serious, but still beyond normal scrapes and bruises, prompting the agency to insist upon a further review, Delong said.

Neither Clark nor Delong would clarify how many officers inflicted actual force versus those accused of covering up facts concerning the incidents.

The four unrelated and separate contraband incidents occurred in the past couple of weeks. Clark said three correctional officers carried cell phones into the jail. Another officer carried smokeless tobacco into a secured area, but away from the inmates.

Delong said both items are allowed in the general public, but strictly against division policy. For instance, he said cell phones can jeopardize safety interests, as the devices give inmates an unmonitored line of communication both inside and outside of the jail.

The first of the contraband suspensions will begin later this week. Clark said those officers had been working through a 15-day appeal period set by state law.

Those implicated in the excessive force incidents are suspended pending the outcome of the agency's internal investigation. Delong said those cleared of wrongdoing will receive back pay, but others face further discipline and possible termination if the accusations are upheld.

Delong hopes findings of the internal investigation are presented to the agency's mitigation review committee by early next week. That inquiry is separate from an external investigation being completed by the West Virginia State Police.

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