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WV eager to fix prison overcrowding

Prisons
May. 22, 2011 @ 10:13 PM

CHARLESTON -- 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 inmate overcrowding crisis.

The crisis became a recurring topic during last week's legislative interim meetings. Lawmakers learned that an all-time high of 1,700 people sentenced to prison remain in jails instead because of a lack of bed space at Division of Corrections facilities. 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 this month, legislators were told. The state estimates that their ranks will swell to 8,500 in 2016 and then to 9,700 by the end of 2020.

"The inn is full," Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told one House-Senate interim committee. "We've got our facilities full. The regional jails are overcrowded, and the growth continues."

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 nonpartisan Pew Center on the States. But the Pew report also found West Virginia with the second fastest growing inmate population.

Rubenstein said the state's new accelerated parole program, aimed at the least risky of nonviolent offenders, should increase releases by 200 to 250 people annually. But he and other officials also noted that the state's Corrections population has increased by a net 200 so far this year.

"No advantage there, it doesn't look like to me, as far as reducing the overcrowding," said Delegate John Frazier, D-Mercer and a retired longtime circuit judge. "That's not going to be the big answer to the overcrowding problem, is it?"

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-abusing offenders. Rubenstein touted how his agency is increasing the amount of beds in treatment facilities within the prisons.

The commissioner also quickly added that this step can help only so much.

"As we open those up, you'll see a little decline in the numbers," Rubenstein said. "But in a matter of four, five or six months, it's but a memory."

That prompted Frazier to cite another of the study's 14 recommendations, one that the state has yet to pursue: a new 1,200-bed medium-security facility.

"Perhaps the real resolution to this is what no one wants to talk about, no one wants to address. That is the building of another prison," Frazier said.

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, operating expenses aside.

Tomblin considers the price tag one of several questions the state must answer before embarking upon such a project, spokeswoman Kimberly Osborne said Friday.

"While the necessity to expand facilities within the system cannot be discounted, further considerations must first be given to how to reverse the current trend of steady population growth," Osborne said. "The administration wants to comprehensively develop solutions to the challenges the system faces and not just arbitrarily treat the symptoms."

The state has begun expanding the St. Marys Correctional Center, as recommended by the study. But Rubenstein noted that the 300 new beds that will result there, when combined with the addition of the recommended new prison, would not even cure the current jail backlog.

"As we're trying to curb that growth, even level it off or see a decline, what we're faced with is a large number of inmates who remains in those regional jails," Rubenstein said. "There's no magic bullet that is just going to wipe that out."

What is more likely to help is a wide-ranging approach that embraces more of the study's recommendations, Rubenstein told lawmakers. Osborne agreed, citing the state's stepped-up efforts to combat prescription drug abuse and otherwise recognize the link between substance abuse and inmate population growth. As had Rubenstein, Osborne also said that 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.

"They tackled it in a variety of ways," Rubenstein said. "I think any state commissioner or director would say there's no way to build your way out of what we have here."

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