A state official believes a new bill will help ease prison overcrowding in West Virginia prisons - including Huttonsville Correctional Center, which a local resident alleges is becoming a more violent facility due to overcrowding.
Jim Rubenstein, commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Corrections, does not deny that prison overcrowding is a problem. In fact, he is hopeful that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's prison overcrowding and justice reinvestment proposal - Senate Bill 371 - will pass the House, as it already has the Senate, before the session ends this week.
"I certainly support the bill," Rubenstein said in a phone interview with The Inter-Mountain. "It will strengthen the community corrections program."
He said the bill would allow inmates to receive targeted assessments that would streamline the parole process. Validated assessments would be used from sentencing through probation.
Currently, Rubenstein said, inmates are provided resources for rehabilitation that don't exactly correspond with their needs. Bill 371 would help to better identify the needs of each inmate so he can receive exactly the resources he needs.
Officials on parole boards, in turn, would be able to witness each inmate's progress through the programs in which he is selected to participate. He also said new assessments would be better able to identify the risk level of each inmate, to determine whether or not he is likely to reoffend once outside prison walls.
In addition, no inmate would be released without supervision, Rubenstein said, if Bill 371 is passed.
"It's a good bill that could curb the (prison) population and still keep our citizens safe," Rubenstein said.
Along with voicing his support of the bill, Rubenstein responded to concerns about overcrowding, violence and improper treatment of inmates at Huttonsville Correctional Center alleged by an Inter-Mountain reader.
Myrtle Shahan was vocal about the amount of inmates currently housed at the prison - one of whom is her boyfriend, who Shahan said is being treated improperly by prison staff.
"I don't like the way the prison is being run," Shahan said in a recent interview with The Inter-Mountain.
She said the section of cells her boyfriend is housed in could properly hold up to 77 inmates. At the time of her interview with the Inter-Mountain, Shahan said, it contained 125 inmates. This alleged overcrowding is what she considers to be the root problem at Huttonsville.
"That is why there is so much violence there," she said.
Shahan said prison officials are turning a blind eye to the issue of overcrowding and that her boyfriend is reporting increases in violent behavior from his fellow inmates.
When asked about overcrowding and violence at Huttonsville, Rubenstein said the WVDOC follows procedures set by the state for the amount of inmates who can be held in any cell, or cell block.
"We are always looking to have proper separation of inmates," he said. "We have a policy that meets the approval of the courts."
Shahan alleges that, instead of fixing the problem of overcrowding, HCC officials are being unfair with their treatment of prisoners who step out of line.
She said prisoners are receiving punishments by correctional officers that don't match the degree of their offenses.
Specifically, she said officers are showing favoritism toward inmates, and those who aren't among the favored will often be put in solitary confinement for minor infractions, such as stepping over designated lines on the ground where inmates are told to stand.
Shahan said solitary is sometimes made worse for inmates when correctional officers don't give them food for several days at a time.
"They are being inhumane to these boys," she said.
Physical punishment, she said, had also occured. She said beatings of inmates, by officers, are not uncommon, and she said she heard one inmate received a broken arm as a result of a confrontation and that the arm was not given immediate medical attention.
She also alleged officers were taunting inmates. As an example, she said she has been told that officers will bring in cigarettes into the prison where inmates are not allowed.
Rubenstein said punishments are not handed out on a whim. When inmates commit offenses, he said, there are standard procedures which are followed in the application of punishments. He said there are court hearings to deal with more severe transgressions.
He said policies are followed by all correctional officers and that there is no favoritism at the prison.
Shahan also claimed her boyfriend isn't receiving the medical treatment he needs and that he is being unfairly treated regarding his bids for parole.
She said her boyfriend's back was broken before he was incarcerated and now he is being refused necessary medical treatment, which includes draining fluid from his back.
Shahan said he was denied parole and is filing an appeal. However, she said he wasn't receiving his mail from prison officials because it contained documents related to the appeal.