Blog Posts > Special Session Pay Raises Excluded Some of DCR’s Most Crucial Staff
August 16, 2023

Special Session Pay Raises Excluded Some of DCR’s Most Crucial Staff

This blog post was authored by Teri Castle, our 2023 Criminal Legal Reform Summer Research Fellow.

One year after Governor Justice declared a state of emergency in West Virginia’s Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR), state government took action to address the agency’s high staff vacancies. This week, lawmakers passed a series of bills (SB 1003, SB 1004, SB 1005) that will provide pay raises for correctional officers (COs). Although non-CO staff will receive two bonuses over the next several months, they were not included in the permanent pay raises given to COs.

There is bipartisan recognition that these bills fall short by leaving out non-CO staff. As a formerly incarcerated person, I understand that while lawmakers funded the corrections side of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, they left behind the people who support rehabilitation. People like:

  • The chaplains who oversee all religious functions in DCR facilities. When I worked as a chaplain’s assistant at Lakin Correctional Center, I witnessed our chaplain guide those who had lost loved ones through the grieving process – arranging funeral transports and providing emotional support.
  • Substance abuse therapists in the GOALS or RSAT programs who help people understand and overcome the substance use disorders that brought them to jail or prison.
  • Corrections Industries staff who teach and supervise residents who produce office furniture, clothing, and license plates for sale to state agencies. For me, Corrections Industries was my first experience of carrying the responsibility of a full-time, 9-to-5 job. When the Covid pandemic began in 2020, we were proud to do our part: sewing face masks for the public and personal protective equipment for the National Guard.
  • The reentry coordinators and institutional parole officers who help coordinate the nearly 2,000 prison releases that happen each year.

There are many, many more non-uniform staff who help us hold on to our dignity while we serve our time: the custodians who sanitize facilities and clean our clothing; the mail clerks who keep us connected to our loved ones; the counselors who work with you to develop and stay on track with your rehabilitative classes and programming.

Together these people helped me learn new skills, a sense of discipline, and how to forgive myself. They too deserve good pay.

The emphasis on corrections above rehabilitation reminds me of the recreation experience at Lakin Correctional Center. During my incarceration, I watched how recreation deteriorated as the prison population – and need to cut costs – grew.

When I arrived at Lakin in 2007, there was a dedicated recreation team. Led by Chip, the recreation programming kept us busy with activities like softball, volleyball, and kickball. Organized softball teams would compete against one another in tournaments, with the winning team earning the chance to face off against the Correctional Officers (COs). On game day both staff and residents would cheer the teams on.

With Chip in charge, we never lacked physical activities. He would seek out residents who were tied up in other programming to make sure we could have our recreation time. This is important work in a prison. A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 3 out of 4 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are overweight, obese, or morbidly obese. Chip’s programming gave us the chance to beat the odds and let go of the stress that builds up in incarcerated bodies.

The recreation department also gave us a sense of connection with each other – and with the world beyond prison.

For a charity fundraiser, Chip advertised the chance to buy tickets to dunk a CO. The COs had a friendly competition amongst themselves over who could sell the most tickets. We were all excited for days before the event. On the day of, we had music, volleyball, and slushies on the yard while waiting for the dunks to begin. They announced the first CO to get in the dunk tank over the loudspeaker and we all rushed over to get our turn. We took turns throwing the balls at the target. It was hard. For a while, we thought the machine was rigged because no one went down. Finally, we succeeded, and the first CO went into the water. The entire yard exploded in cheers. It was a great day. Instead of residents against COs, we felt like a unified community.

On May 10, 2008, Lakin held its first Open House / Family Day – a day for our loved ones to spend an entire day with us in prison. We residents were on our best behavior knowing that our participation depended on us staying out of trouble. The day before, the recreation yard was transformed to accommodate inflatable bouncy houses, slides, and tables for arts and crafts. On Open House days, the staff opened the doors to the yard and we rushed out. The people who did not have family coming rushed off to try the inflatables. The rest of us stood at the bottom of the hill waiting for our families to enter. The families and especially the kids ran down the hill to hug their incarcerated moms and grandmas. Alantis, my daughter who was five-years-old, arrived and we headed straight to the inflatable slides. She climbed on my lap, and we slid down together. We kept getting back in line to slide down over and over again. Being able to hold my daughter throughout the day – without the limitations of the traditional visit – meant that we got the physical connection we craved. My daughter got to see her mother be fun. And I became more determined to be a better role model, to be a mom she can be proud of.

Teri and her daughter at Open House in Lakin Correctional Center.

It was a sad day at Lakin when Chip left. He had so much energy and enthusiasm for his work. The prison turned to COs to supervise recreation time, but they didn’t have the time or expertise to plan organized activities. There were no more organized sports teams and regular games, just the walking track. The weights and exercise equipment remained locked in the recreation office. There was an occasional basketball or badminton game, but we had lost a crucial part of our routine as residents. The pandemic only made it worse – by eliminating the annual Open House beloved by residents and their families.

The lack of physical activity – coupled with the decline in food quality – affected my health. I developed chronic physical illnesses and depression. By the time I was released from prison in 2021, I had gained 50 pounds. This was not an uncommon experience for women at Lakin.

Recreation is just one example of how overincarceration and underfunded prisons can distract DCR from its real mission: sending home people who are healthier and better equipped for life than when they entered.

The recent pay raises and bonuses may be too little, too late for DCR, which has struggled to maintain staffed facilities for years. Lawmakers are right to be concerned about non-CO staff, but they can’t stop there.

Last week, six out of ten DCR jails had more people than they were designed to house. One facility, North Central Regional Jail, had 828 people in a facility designed for 564. Overcrowded, poorly-maintained facilities will always struggle to attract qualified staff who will stay. Until lawmakers address the number of people behind bars, West Virginia’s state of emergency will continue.

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