Statehouse Beat: Prison population concerns
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- News that the state's prison population has dropped by 253 in just seven months since the Justice Reinvestment Act, intended to at least stop the growth in prison overcrowding, was signed into law was welcomed by the Legislature.
Of course, that's primarily the result of the conversion of the old Industrial Home for Youth into the Salem Correctional Facility, which currently houses 296 adult offenders, and ultimately will house 400. Also, a provision in the new law that gives judges alternatives to revoking parole for technical violations evidently is keeping some folks out of prison.
However, George Castelle and Ronni Sheets with the Kanawha County Public Defenders' Office aren't convinced the new law is doing enough to alleviate overcrowding in state prisons.
They've filed a petition this month with the state Supreme Court for a motion to compel the Division of Corrections to comply with a long-ignored 2002 court order to reduce prison overcrowding.
That order, issued in September 2002 in the case of State v. Sams, directed the Division of Corrections, and the executive and legislative branches, to take several steps to get inmates out of prison more quickly:
* Extra good time. Currently, each day an inmate isn't written up for causing trouble, he is credited with a day of good time against his sentence. In its long-term plan, the Court ordered Corrections to develop ways inmates could earn additional good time days, by successfully completing educational and rehabilitative programs, and for exceptional work or service.
* Commuting sentences. The court ordered Corrections to work with the governor's office to identify inmates who are candidates to have their sentences commuted, either because they are older and no longer pose a threat to society, or because they have demonstrated years of good conduct and have completed required class work.
"To the best of the petitioners' knowledge, in the entire time the long-term plan has been in effect, the DOC has failed to recommend even one single prisoner for a commutation of sentence," Castelle's petition states.
* Accelerated parole. The petition contends that not only has a plan to speed up eligibility for parole hearings never been properly implemented, but that the Parole Board has imposed artificial impediments to granting parole. (The key impediment being requiring inmates housed in Regional Jails to complete counseling, educational and treatment programs that aren't even offered in those facilities.)
The petition notes that in its 2002 order, the Supreme Court said it was preferable to give the executive and legislative branches "clear and definite opportunities" to enact the new policies, than to impose judicial intervention.
"Instead of opening up space in DOC facilities and reducing the backlog by implementing the cost-saving provisions of the long-term plan, the DOC now proposes to reduce the backlog by the costly and constitutionally questionable proposal to relocate up to 400 prisoners to out-of-state prisons," the petition states.
(By the way, bid opening for that contract has been postponed a second time and is now set for Dec. 5. Only two private corrections companies attended the pre-bid conference and are eligible to submit bids: Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, and Community Education Centers, based in Houston.)
At the time the court issued its order in 2002, there were about 4,500 inmates in the Division of Corrections, about 800 of whom were housed in regional and county jails because of overcrowding.
As of last week, those numbers had grown to 6,825, with 1,192 in regional jails.
Speaking of Corrections, the division awarded the contract to provide cable TV service to 1,100 TVs in cells and common areas at Mount Olive Correctional Center to Suddenlink, at a cost of $5 per outlet per month or $66,000 a year.
However, a potentially lower bid, from Derint Enterprises of Houston, had to be disqualified because it arrived in Purchasing Division offices eight minutes past the bid-opening deadline.
Nonetheless, the bid package does provide an interesting insight on how much ESPN programming inflates cable and satellite TV costs.
Citing Dish Network hospitality customer (hotels, motels, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons) rates, the Derint bid indicated it could provide a 133-channel package for $3.75 per outlet per month. However, that package would not include three of the 47 channels specifically required in the Corrections request for bids: FX, Turner Classic Movies and ESPN.
For $5.21 per outlet per month, Derint indicated it could provide all requested channels but ESPN. A satellite package with ESPN channels (including ESPN2, ESPN News, ESPN Classic, and ESPNU) would kick the cost up to $9.76 per outlet per month.
Finally, here in the Capitol press room, we get our Internet service through a server operated by the Legislature. So imagine my surprise last week to learn the server's web filter had blocked access to the West Virginia Lottery's official website, deeming it to be a gambling site.
Reach Phil Kabler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1220.