By Patrick Orsagos
In early October 2019, 206 women, more than a quarter of the women serving prison sentences in West Virginia, were serving those sentences in regional jails, where they did not have equal access to the educational, career development or drug rehabilitation programs they would have at Lakin Correctional Center, the state’s only women’s prison.
Between 1999 and 2003, the state spent almost $30 million to first build, and then expand a maximum-security women’s prison to house the growing number of women being sentenced to prison. But the incarceration rate grew faster than the state could build. It went from 65 women sentenced to prison in 1999 to 622 in 2016, a 857% increase according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Lakin only has room for 584 women, so the state’s 10 regional jail facilities are housing the overflow. Most of those jails are over capacity, sometimes by more than a hundred prisoners.
Lisa Hartline, who is now an attorney at Legal Aid West Virginia in Wheeling, spent about eight months between 2002 and 2005 in and out of North Central Regional Jail and South Central Regional Jail for various drug possession and tax fraud crimes.
“It was extremely over-crowded,” Hartline said. “There was a time when there was three and four people in one cell, and they are only made to be for one.”
When she served her sentence in SCRJ, she said the jail was so overcrowded that some were not given beds.
“[T]hey called them beds, but it’s just a slab…they give you a matt like when you were in gym class,” she said, “and they were putting people on the floor in these cells.”
Fourteen years later, audits of the jails, required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), show the situation hasn’t changed. At the end of June 2019, there were 763 people in NCRJ, even though its design capacity is 564. Earlier in June of the same year, 602 people were incarcerated at SCRJ, which was designed for 460.
If rehabilitation is one function of prison sentences, women who serve part or most of their time in jails are at a distinct disadvantage. At Lakin Correctional Center, women have access to programs such as Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT), Career Technical Education (CTE)—including certifications in culinary arts, cosmetology and pet grooming—as well as high school equivalency courses and college courses. These programs are intended to facilitate their re-entry after incarceration. Additionally, women at Lakin can work at jobs in the prison to earn money to buy personal hygiene and other items.
By comparison, the jail system was built to house pre-trial defendants and people sentenced to a year or less. There are no jobs for inmates to earn money. Every jail does have substance abuse treatment programs, but participants have to be escorted there by prison staff, so if there is a shortage of staff to take prisoners to the meetings, they don’t go.
In 2012, Kindra Simpson was convicted of identity theft and fraudulent use of an access device. She received a five-year prison sentence. Although she was sentenced to Lakin Correctional Center, Simpson said she spent 13 months at Western Regional Jail, four-and-a-half months at Tygarts Valley Regional Jail and only about five months at Lakin.
Like many incarcerated people in West Virginia, Simpson suffered from substance use disorder. She believes that if she had been able to spend the majority of her sentence at Lakin Correctional Center, she would have had more opportunities to enter into rehabilitation programs. By the time she arrived at Lakin, she was too close to her parole date, making her ineligible for programs like RSAT, and Simpson said she never made it past the waiting list for education courses.
After she was released, she began abusing substances again and went back to rehab in 2014. In rehab, she was able to receive disability but has still not been able to find a full-time job.
Simpson said even though she went through withdrawal in the regional jails, she did not have access to treatment. The lack of staff made it difficult for her to attend narcotics anonymous (NA) or alcoholics anonymous (AA) meetings.
“Most of the time they don’t show up or the [correctional officers] are too understaffed to walk you down the hallways to get a meeting in, so you can learn this stuff,” she said.
Kindra Simpson talks about rehabilitation in the video above.
Access to substance abuse rehabilitation programs is particularly important while the opioid epidemic continues to affect the state. A little over 25% of people entering the regional jails required detox in 2018, according to the DOCR. Only 1.4% required detox in 2013.
While women at Lakin have access to educational and career enrichment programs, each of the 10 regional jails in the Regional Jail Authority (RJA) has only one teacher on staff, according to Fran Warsing, the former superintendent of the Institutional Education Programs in West Virginia—now referred to as Diversion and Transition Programs in the Department of Education. She retired in 2014.
“The problem with having just one teacher and with people being held for longer periods of time, [who] should be in correctional facilities is that we did not have the variety of programming at the regional jails that they could have gotten,” she said.
Each teacher in the regional jails teaches four, one-and-a-half hour classes of 15 to 20 students per day where students’ education levels range from below an elementary reading level to students trying to obtain their high school equivalency. Each class must be single-sex and inmates with misdemeanor crimes and felonies are also separated. There is typically only one class per day for incarcerated women, Warsing said.
An additional concern for women serving time in jails may be safety. In 2012, the Charleston Gazette reported that all incarcerated women in jails were being moved to Tygarts Valley Regional Jail as a result of sexual misconduct cases. Joe Delong, the former executive director of the RJA, was quoted saying that there are more female correctional officers at Tygarts Valley. The RJA was also working to install surveillance cameras in the jail.
In 2013, the Gazette reported that the state spent $12 million in the previous decade in court costs regarding sexual assault claims from jails and prisons.
In 2020, there are women at the other regional jails in the state, but repeated requests to the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to ascertain the date women began re-populating the other jails have gone unanswered, and audit reports showed that some of the jails still don’t have cameras to cover blind spots. In addition, hiring of correctional officers to staff the jails remains an ongoing challenge.
Between 2013 and 2018, the state spent $2.3 million on legal fees and settlements in sexual misconduct cases from the state’s jails and prisons according to the West Virginia Bureau of Insurance and Risk Management (BRIM).