W. Va. warden expresses concerns over staff shortages' effects

According to a report, staffing turnover rates increased in the three agencies under the department


By Andrea Lannom
The Register-Herald, Beckley, W. Va.

MOUNT OLIVE, W. Va. — Acting Mount Olive Warden Ralph Terry describes his line of work as a calling – a calling he remembers having as a young child when he aspired to become a "castle guard."

When he was a young boy, his mother frequently drove by the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville, a Gothic-style structure that opened in 1876 and closed in 1995. He remembered asking his mom, "Who lives in that castle?" He especially became fascinated by the people standing outside during a shift change. His mother told him those were the "castle guards."

In this Tuesday, July 3, 2012 photo, inmates mill around the yard in front of a cellblock at the maximum-security Mount Olive Correctional Center in Mount Olive, W.Va.
In this Tuesday, July 3, 2012 photo, inmates mill around the yard in front of a cellblock at the maximum-security Mount Olive Correctional Center in Mount Olive, W.Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

“Lo and behold, I became a castle guard,” he says.

Now, Terry sits behind a desk as the acting warden of the maximum security prison in Fayette County. Above the desk is a memorial dedicated to correctional officers who lost their lives in the line of duty.

Mount Olive was built as a replacement for the penitentiary at a cost of $61.8 million. Construction of the Mount Olive facility began in 1991 and was completed in 1994. It started receiving its first inmates in 1995.

The all-male facility can hold up to 1,030 prisoners and an extra 40 in the work camp. Normally, Mount Olive is at capacity, Terry says.

"We try to be at capacity," he says. "We get some from the regional jails because they are busting at the seams, so we try to be at capacity."

Wearing a tan dress shirt with tiny golden handcuffs – a freebie from a Correctional Peace Officers Foundation event – affixed to his gray and brown tie, Terry says his biggest challenge isn't maintaining the facility itself but attracting and retaining correctional officers to staff it. And Terry isn't alone.

According to a report from the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, staffing turnover rates increased in the three agencies under the department from 29.2 percent in 2014 to 32.2 percent in 2016. At the time of the report, West Virginia ranked lowest in the nation for correctional officers' starting salary ($22,584). In July, the State Personnel Board voted to approve a $1-an-hour pay increase for state correctional officers amounting to $2,080. This applied to all seven classifications of correctional officers as well as new hires.

At a legislative interim session in early December, legislators discussed ways to increase pay as a means to reduce turnover. In that meeting, David Farmer, executive director of the state Regional Jails and Correctional Facility Authority, said starting salaries for correctional officers in surrounding areas were higher than West Virginia's, ranging from $30,000 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to $49,000 in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

Pay is a big factor, Terry says. So, too, are working conditions.

“I don't know if money is the answer,” Terry says. “You need people who want to stay. You have to find people who match with the job. You have to have people who stay long-term.

“You need people who want to come here to begin with. I can't get people to fill out an application. Even if they're unemployed, they've heard the horror stories.”

At last week's interim committee meeting, officials said overtime costs for the three correctional agencies in 2016 totaled more than $13 million. It is not uncommon for correctional officers to work up to 16 hours a day and up to six days a week depending on how short-staffed the facility is that week, Terry says.

With overtime, officers can make $45,000-$50,000 a year.

“But they work ungodly hours,” Terry says. “It's nothing to work 60 hours a week."

For 2016, 448 correctional officers left the Division of Corrections. More than 75 percent left within their first two years of service and more than 66 percent left within their first year, according to the report.

Terry says Mount Olive is short 93 officers. He estimates he may have 15 officers who have worked at the facility for 10 years or more.

“You come to work, you can get assaulted, have human waste thrown at you. You're threatened by murderers. Some will tell new correctional officers, 'I get out in February and I'll be looking for you when I get out.' It scares the heck out of young people. They don't want to stay," Terry says.

Newly appointed Sen. Stephen Baldwin, a Democrat from Greenbrier County, recently arranged a tour of the facility. He wanted to see the state of the facility and its operations for himself – and to get a first-hand look at how the correctional officer shortage is affecting Mount Olive.

Terry walks Baldwin into the maximum and super-maximum security portion of the prison. Inmates in this section are in their cells 22 to 23 hours a day. Terry estimates 30 percent of inmates at the facility will be there the rest of their lives.

“These are the people who are an escape risk. Officers are more likely to get assaulted here or have human waste thrown at them."

Terry gives Baldwin a complete tour including the kitchen, educational rooms and Correctional Industries where inmates make a variety of products including license plates and interstate signs.

Terry also directs Baldwin through the 27-bed infirmary. Donna Warden, RN and health services administrator at Mount Olive, says there are 50 employees in her section. Warden tells Baldwin that she would recommend an extended care facility. She says the population is getting older with the average age of inmates around 40.

Warden leans on a wall outside her office and talks in general terms about the prison population at the facility. “Old age in prison is in your 50s. You see a lot of natural deaths come in mid- to late 50s. You see people walking around, people who look like they're in their 70s. But they're in their 50s. That's what life in prison does to you.”

Shortages of correctional officers affect her area as well.

“The shortage affects how quickly we can respond, how we respond, and doesn't allow us to focus on what we have to focus on medically without looking over our shoulders,” Warden says. “Their staffing affects us too. It affects us all.”

Sometimes, she says, this shortage can lead to delayed care because health care staff have to wait until it's secure or inmates will have to wait until officers can escort them to that area. She said there are other issues with rapid turnover.

“With large turnover or inexperienced correctional officers who don't know the system, there are issues,” she says.

“Sometimes, they will believe things hook, line and sinker and fall for a lot. It takes experience. With rapid turnover, it affects that.”

Upon the conclusion of the tour, Baldwin stands outside the facility. It is a chilly, blustery afternoon. He notes the occasional flurry. He says he came in with a concern about correctional officers but also building issues because of problems he had witnessed at other facilities.

Baldwin is impressed with the educational area at Mount Olive. He says he felt encouraged by vocational training geared to train people to become contributing members of society.

However, the work environment for correctional officers is a concern.

"The work environment issue is heartbreaking," Baldwin says. "Officers have to give up their entire lives. What can you do? Money is important and I think the Legislature should appropriate more funds. I know an across-the-board pay raise of $5,000-$6,000 is being discussed and I don't see why we shouldn't do that. It's not the solution but it's an important part."

Baldwin says he has talked to several current and former corrections employees about the work conditions.

"I asked them, 'What can be done to improve it?' They said the most important thing is for officers to know their work is valuable and to know they are valued as team members," Baldwin says. "The state can show the value of work with respectable pay, and the local leadership can show each employee they are valued by treating them with respect — including them in decision-making, providing as much continuity and communication about schedules as possible, and constantly being sure everyone knows their role in the system."

"I think Warden Terry is sincerely working to do each of these things," Baldwin added.

©2017 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.)

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