The recent death of Tygart Valley Regional Jail inmate, 36-year-old Charles E. Ellison of Slatyfork, has raised many questions for Mountain State residents.
Perhaps the most pressing question is how did he die and what role, if any, did West Virginia's overcrowded prison system - a key issue lawmakers have repeatedly pledged to address - play in Ellison's death?
Last week, The Inter-Mountain toured TVRJ and talked with administrator Scott Villers about prison overpopulation and its effects locally. Although Villers would not comment on issues that may have factored into Ellison's death, he did say that overcrowding is problem with which TVRJ is continually contending.
Opened in June 2005, TVRJ houses inmates from Barbour, Upshur, Randolph, Pocahontas, Tucker and Taylor counties. As of Wednesday, there were exactly 487 inmates lodged in TVRJ -187 more than the 300 it was designed to hold.
"We've had additional bunks installed to deal with that, but even with additional bedding, we're still overcrowded," Villers said. "We've been averaging over the last several months about 500 inmates."
In many instances two inmates share a cell designed for one, and Villers admits the prison has sometimes had to place three inmates in one cell.
"I know of other facilities that have been so overcrowded they've had to put four to a cell," he said. "We haven't had to do that, fortunately."
Although each inmate has access to sink and toilet inside the cell and sleeps on his or her own mattress, the jail isn't always able to provide everyone with a bed frame on which to place their mattresses - sometimes, prisoners sleep on mattresses on the floor, Villers said.
"This is inmate life," Villers said, motioning at a group of women clad in orange jumpsuits sitting on small, circular seats attached to a steel table. "It's not very glamorous."
If the West Virginia Division of Corrections had more slots open for inmates who have been convicted and sentenced to time in the state penitentiary, overcrowding wouldn't have ballooned into the giant problem it is, Villers said.
Encompassed within the walls of TVRJ is a special housing unit staffed by female correctional officers that houses state-sentenced female offenders from a variety of areas across West Virginia.
"We have 261 females waiting to go to prison (the state penitentiary) housed in this facility," Villers said.
Overpopulated prisons lead to overburdened staff and an increase in inmate-on-inmate violence, Villers explained.
"The work load on the medical staff, the counseling staff and the security staff is increased tremendously," the TVRJ administrator said. "It also creates additional stress on the inmates."
Villers said he's noticed a gradual increase in inmate-on-inmate violence the most apparent form of violence as well as inmate-on-staff violence, which has also risen incrementally.
"Correctional officers are underpaid for the jobs they endure, the duties they provide and the services they perform," he said.
The starting salary for a correctional officer at TVRJ is $22,000, and it's capped somewhere between $32,000 and $36,000, Villers said.
"They make a little better than fast-food wages, but not much," he said. "We deal with the people society doesn't want to deal with."
Many state legislators, like Bill Hartman, D-Randolph, have acknowledged the gravity of the prison overpopulation problem and say lawmakers are trying to hash out a solution.
"It's a very serious problem," Hartman recently told The Inter-Mountain. "I guess there's two or three things proposed. Community corrections has been working very good, but obviously it hasn't kept enough people out of jail. There's the possibility of not returning people on parole for minor violations as well as early-outs for nonviolent offenders, and of course there's a flip side to that."
Instituting adult drug courts across the entire state in combination with beefed up rehabilitation services is one plausible remedy, Hartman said.
In the meantime, Villers and the staff at TVRJ are working to curb the unwanted consequences of overcrowding, such as increased violence.
TVRJ is in the midst of installing 115 surveillance cameras throughout the facility that will monitor the common areas of all housing units, all hallways, classrooms and control posts. Currently, surveillance cameras only record activity in the intake area, where emotions are usually the most raw, Villers said.
"It's going to be a godsend," Villers said. "It's going to go back two years, so any rule violation or any suspicious activity we can confirm or deny, pretty cut and dry."
The project began two weeks ago and is expected to be complete within six months.
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.