CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) - The crisis in West Virginia jails may soon be over as hundreds of corrections officers and counselors have been hired.
Over-worked staff were at their breaking point when lawmakers took action to pass a pay raise. Before that bill even goes into effect next month, the impact is already being seen. Just two months after the Governor put pen to paper, the Department of Military Affairs hired 730 people to fill hundreds of open positions.
"It's great news, we've filled those vacanies, we're keeping West Virginians in those facilities safe and that's great news for all of us," Delegate Andrew Robinson told 13 News.
Delegate Robinson, and others, spearheaded the effort to give corrections officers a $2,000 a pay raise for each of the next 3 years.
"There were drastic pay scale differences between WV and surrounding states, and we were having issues creating a safe environment for those officers. So it's a great thing moving forward for WV," Delegate Robinson explained.
Officers will also get the 5% across the board pay raise for all state employees. Union representatives say it will provide workers a living wage.
"When they go to work each and every day they go through those doors, that are secured, not knowing what's going to await them and whether they get out of there safely and we want them to be able to return home to their families," Elaine Harris of the CWA told 13 News.
Harris said these 730 corrections staff will still need weeks, even months of training, but it will soon provide relief to overworked officers.
"The people that have been working long hours are still working those, the guard is still there. But hopefully get those folks trained," Harris added.
Advocates say this is a great first step, but they hope to continue seeing pay raises each year so that the jobs are competitive and continue to be filled across the state.
"We're very appreciate of what happened here, we need to continue that we stay up in pay and the working condition," Harris said.
These new hires eclipse the turnover during that time by 459 correctional officers. This marks a dramatic reversal from before Governor Justice proposed the pay raises, when the correctional agencies struggled to replace departing officers. The recruiting surge has reduced the high number of vacancies that had challenged these agencies by 67 percent since March 6.
Both Governor Justice and DMAPS Secretary Jeff Sandy have received testimonials from several new hires, specifically citing the pay raises for their decisions. One new staffer at the Lorrie Yeager Juvenile Center in Wood County credited a chance meeting with Secretary Sandy in his thank-you note to Governor Justice.
“I am very blessed to have been given this life-changing opportunity right when I needed it the most,” Correctional Counselor Andrew Kirk said in his message. “I have since bought a house and am planning my wedding for this upcoming November. I am proud of my position that I now hold, and I am grateful that I can provide for my family.”
The new DMAPS recruits also include Adam Pruett, grandson of legendary Marshall University football coach Bob Pruett. He has also joined the ranks at the Division of Juvenile Services.
“Becoming a correctional counselor with the division has allowed me to follow my passion of working with young people in a correctional setting. The raises that Governor Justice has provided have allowed me to pursue my career goals with a much greater sense of economic stability that would have been impossible otherwise,” the younger Pruett wrote. “This economic stability has created jobs that are attractive and sustainable to many highly qualified and motivated applicants… I am extremely grateful to Governor Justice and his administration for opening these doors for not only myself, but for all my coworkers in the Division of Juvenile Services.”
Governor Justice’s correctional pay raises will benefit all new hires and existing employees, both officers and non-uniform staff, at the Division of Corrections (the state’s prison system), the Regional Jail Authority and the Division of Juvenile Services. It will increase wages by $2,000 annually on July 1 of this year, 2019 and 2020 for a total of $6,000.
These correctional employees will also receive the raises approved for teachers, state troopers and other state employees during this year’s regular session. The pay increases will also remain in place once the three DMAPS agencies consolidate starting July 1 through a separate new law that creates a unified Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation at DMAPS.
All told, the prison system has hired 231 new officers, the regional jails 410 and Juvenile Services 80. This has reduced their vacancies to less than 200 at Corrections, less than 125 at the jails and 68 at DJS.
Secretary Sandy expects those remaining vacancies will shrink even further before the pay raises start to take effect July 1.
“The fellowship and the teamwork that happens at Military Affairs and Public Safety is second to none. I’ve never seen this at such a high level during my 38 years of public service,” said Secretary Sandy, a retired career U.S. Treasury agent and former elected sheriff of Wood County.