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Out-of-state inmate relocation temporary, official says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Division of Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein assured legislators Monday that a proposed move of about 400 West Virginia inmates to a privately operated out-of-state prison would be strictly temporary.

Members of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jails and Corrections raised questions about the request for bids to move the inmates, currently housed in regional jails around the state.

"We look at this as a temporary solution to be able to identify certain classifications of inmates and to get them ... into a facility where they can start taking advantage of programming," Rubenstein told the committee.

Because of overcrowding, about 1,500 inmates who should be in prisons are instead housed in regional jails, where they can't receive treatment, counseling and educational or vocational programs needed to qualify for parole, he said.

"These inmates sent to regional jails are not afforded the same services as those in correctional facilities," Rubenstein said. "There are a lot of people who are not receiving any type of treatment that they should be, and they're sitting for extended periods of time [in regional jails]."

In September, Corrections put out a request for bids for a contract to house up to 400 inmates in an out-of-state facility. The bid package requires that the prison provide all programs and services available in West Virginia correctional facilities and that it be accredited by the American Correctional Association.

Only two bidders attended a mandatory pre-bid conference in order to bid on the contract Nov. 5: Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, Tenn., and Houston-based Community Education Centers. Both are private correctional companies.

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, a former Fayette County sheriff, said he wants assurances the out-of-state arrangement would be temporary.

"I'm concerned that once we go down that road, will we ever come back again?" Laird said.

He also questioned why Corrections was pursuing the out-of-state option, months after the Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act (SB371), intended to reduce prison overcrowding, and with the conversion of the former Industrial Home for Youth in Salem into a correctional facility.

"My question is, why now, if we're going to have expanded capabilities at Salem, and other efforts to enhance capacity within our system?" Laird asked.

Rubenstein said Salem currently houses 114 inmates, with about 60 inmates being transferred there each week until it reaches its 388-bed capacity.

He said that still leaves a lot of Corrections inmates in regional jails.

Rubenstein believes the Justice Reinvestment Act will be effective in reducing prison overcrowding when fully implemented, with elements such as expanded community corrections, transitional housing and graduated sanctions still in the developmental stages.

He said Corrections is already seeing benefits from the initial efforts to implement the legislation. Six months ago, he noted, the total state inmate population hit the 7,100 mark.

"This morning it's at 6,842," he said Monday.

Rubenstein also noted that while the West Virginia Constitution prohibits out-of-state banishment of prisoners, attorneys have advised that inmates can voluntarily waive that right in order to be transferred from regional jails to the out-of-state facility.

"We have checked that out with a number of legal counsel, and I have been advised we are well within our rights to do that," he said.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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