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South Central Jail chief: Overcrowding worst in W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many West Virginia jails are overcrowded, but the director of the South Central Regional Jail in Charleston says the situation at his facility is the worst in the state.

The jail sometimes houses about 600 inmates, despite being built to hold half that many, said SCRJ director Stephen Tucker. And to make matters worse, the jail has maintenance problems and not enough correctional officers.

State corrections officials have warned for years of the dangers of overcrowded jails. Earlier this month, lawmakers again started to talk about ways to alleviate the problem after they were told it was at "crisis" levels.

A large number of prisoners from the West Virginia Division of Corrections contribute most to the overcrowding, Tucker said, because they are housed temporarily in the jails while awaiting transfer to state prisons, which are themselves at maximum capacity.

He said that if the DOC prisoners were taken to prison, South Central's population would be slightly above 290 -- the number it was built to hold.

"This place was built and opened in 1993 and it was really designed about the right size to serve a county of this size," Tucker said. "If we took out all the inmates that should be elsewhere, we would be at or just above the limit."

Jail officials have had to find ways to make do with limited space at the facility, he said.

When overcrowding is at its worst, cells get double- or triple-bunked, with some inmates sleeping on 3-inch mats on the floor.

When cells get too crowded, some inmates have to sleep in cellblock commons areas -- meaning they can't be locked down if the need arises, Tucker said.

Each block of cells is broken down into "pods," with either eight or 16 cells in each. Pods are broken down into sections, divided by the level of convicted offenses.

Overcrowding has affected cellblocks housing the most violent convicts -- inmates who are required to be separated from others.

"Those on administrative segregation have a history of disruptive problems, disciplinary rule infractions . . . or have a history of assaulting other inmates or correctional officers," Tucker said. "They're generally the folks that have the biggest management problem. Again, those folks should be housed in a cell by themselves because they are such an issue."

Inmates who should be separated because their convictions make them targets for violence from other inmates, are often also double bunked.

"Again, from time to time because of the overcrowding issue, we are forced to go against what common sense would dictate and house them otherwise," Tucker said.

Other problems

Because correctional officers are severely understaffed, some work 60-hour weeks to compensate, Tucker said.

"We have a terrible time recruiting and keeping officers," he said. "They are supervising twice the amount of inmates as they should be, and inmates cause problems, because that's what they do. They've got 24 hours a day to think of ways to create problems.

"They bring stress on the officers," he said, "and the officers, for whatever reason, look for other employment. This adds more hours to remaining officers."

The jail should be staffed with 81 correctional officers. It now has about 66, but that is better than the beginning of the year, when it had just 50, Tucker said.

He said overcrowding creates an environment where a disturbance can become a "flashpoint for violence."

"If you think you're being treated unfairly, as far as your living situation, it can put you on edge on something that otherwise might not create a violent reaction," he said.

Douglas Ganoe, a Charleston resident, said he spent a week last month at South Central for a parole violation. During his stay, he said, he had a cellmate despite being on lockdown and his toilet did not work.

"During inspection, I told the head honcho, the guy walking around, about how our toilet did not work. He wrote about it on a piece of paper and it was never fixed."

Tucker said that, since the jail houses twice the number of inmates it's supposed to, everything wears out twice as fast.

"This jail is almost 18 years old, things are going to wear out," he said. "If your home is 18 years old, that's when things typically start to wear out."

He said his office receives about 170 to 220 complaints a day from inmates about various problems such as plumbing or other water issues. Maintenance crews do the best they can to fix problems because they do not want to shut a cell down, he said.

"I don't think anyone wants jail or prison to be luxurious, I don't think anyone wants that," he said. "It's simply our goal to provide a secure place, which is the first priority, and a humane place. That's what a correctional facility should be."

On a regular day at the jail, six or seven inmates with working privileges prepare meals that will feed all 600 inmates, three times a day.

Those inmates said it's an added strain to proportion out food when overcrowding is at its highest.

Tucker said many West Virginians' knee-jerk reactions to jail overcrowding is to build a new prison. But that would take a long time, he said, and the overcrowding problem needs a solution soon.

"I suspect, if you made the decision today that you're going to build a new prison, it would be five or seven years before you move your first prisoner in there," he said.

He said he favors changing state laws to allow shorter sentences or alternative sentences, such as home confinement, for Division of Corrections prisoners.

"There's no doubt," he said. "To avoid the overcrowding problems here, we need fewer prisoners."

From the Charleston Gazette - Saturday, July 30, 2011  

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