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Editorial: Answers needed on troubles at Western Regional Jail

Nov. 28, 2012 @ 10:40 PM

When roughly 15 percent of a jail's guards are either suspended or facing suspension all at one time, there's a significant problem.

That's the situation now at the Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, and it's raising troublesome questions about the operations there. Keep in mind that as of this week, about 20 guards total at the state's 10 regional jails are currently on suspension. That means three-quarters of them are employed at the Western Regional Jail.

Four of the 15 officers working at the Barboursville jail are facing disciplinary action because they took either tobacco or cell phones into secured areas of the jail. Not good moves on their parts, but not the most major of violations of jail policy.

The other 11 are part of a different story. Their suspensions are related to excessive force applied to two inmates in separate incidents. Some are accused of using the excessive force, and others are believed to have covered up the alleged abuse.

One of the victims of that force received broken ribs, a collapsed lung and broken vertebrae. That amounts to a serious assault, and would be a criminal offense outside prison walls. The other inmate's injuries were less severe, but still were more serious than normal scrapes and bruises, according to Joe Delong, executive director of the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority.

Delong said this week that both his agency and the West Virginia State Police are investigating the incidents. His agency's review also will try to determine whether a culture of "see nothing, hear nothing, record nothing" has developed among the jail's guards -- a good question considering that some of the officers are accused of trying to conceal the alleged abuse of inmates. If such a culture is found to exist, he said, the agency will work hard to eliminate it.

As Delong himself noted, everybody from local jail management to his office is responsible for what happens at the individual jails. We urge investigators to take a close look at all levels of the jail system to determine whether any management factors may have contributed to the alleged abuse or cover-up by the officers.

The investigations also should delve into whether the overcrowded conditions at the jail contributed in any way. All of the state's regional jails are holding more prisoners than they were designed for, primarily because they have had to accept overflow inmates from the state's filled-to-capacity prisons. The Western Regional Jail, for example, was designed to accommodate 400 inmates, but this week was housing approximately 645. Such conditions can only aggravate built-in tensions between inmates and the officers employed to guard them.

The incidents at the Western Regional Jail may well be yet another reason why the state must come to grips with solutions for overcrowding at its prisons and jails.

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