Gov. Justice signs correctional pay package

CHARLESTON — The emergency beacon on top of the Capitol is one day closer to being turned off with the signing of legislation Monday to increase pay for correctional officers and bonuses for support staff to begin relieving a staffing emergency in West Virginia’s jails and prisons.

Gov. Jim Justice signed six corrections bills Monday morning at Gene Spadaro Juvenile Center in Mt. Hope. Justice was joined by Mark Sorsaia, the cabinet secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, and William “Billy” K. Marshall III, the commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“This is an incredible first step,” Justice said after the bill-signing ceremony. “I’m a real believer that if we’ve made the right first step, then we’ve solved the problem. If we haven’t, then we need to solve the problem. That’s all there is to it. Let’s celebrate today.”

Justice signed Senate Bill 1005 providing $21.1 million to increase the starting pay and change pay scales for correctional officers in the state’s system of 11 prisons, 10 regional jails, 10 juvenile centers and three work-release sites. Two other bills, Senate Bills 1003 and 1004, will provide nearly $6 million for one-time bonuses for support staff in the correctional system beginning in October.

The West Virginia Legislature met in a three-day special session last week, passing 35 of 44 bills. Six of those bills dealt with the correctional officer and staff vacancy crisis.

Justice declared a second state of emergency for correctional vacancies last August.

“We’ve been dealing with this situation for too long, way too long,” Justice said. “Today, here we are finally. In many ways, government sometimes works, or often never works, as quickly as we want it to. But thank God we’re here today, because now we are on a pathway of making things better for a lot of folks who are here.”

According to data from DCR last week, more than 1,050 correctional officer vacancies existed with the division losing between 12 and 15 officers each month. The statewide vacancy rate was more than 30 percent, with some individual facilities having officer vacancy rates higher than 60 percent.

“We’re greatly appreciative of this. We know this is going to put us into the future. We’re going to continue to do the job,” Marshall said. “The real work will be done inside DCR. I appreciate you helping us, Governor, get this first step off of the ground.”

Despite praising the Legislature, Justice criticized lawmakers for not passing a bill he offered for two years in a row only aimed at locality pay for correctional facilities, especially those in the Eastern Panhandle, that would raise pay in those facilities to compete with bordering states.

While the Senate has offered locality pay bills before, the House has been reluctant to embrace locality pay. Instead, a House committee earlier this year considered higher pay and retention bonuses for correctional officers and staff.

Those bills were never taken up by the full House.

“We can say ‘this is what we should have done, we should have done, we should have done,’” Justice said. “We sent a bill up two years ago and for whatever the reason may be, and I’m always respectful to the Legislature in every way, but we had all kinds of discussion and infighting, and at the end of the day, we didn’t get anything done. A year ago, we sent another bill up and got the same result. Then the public outcry mounded more and more.”

Justice also signed SB 1006, expanding DCR’s temporary identification card program for inmates being released from jails and prisons; SB 1009, prohibiting use of state funds for medical procedures or benefits that are not medically necessary as determined by the DCR and on the advice of medical professionals; and SB 1039, creating a special revenue fund for deferred maintenance at jails and prisons.

The state is in the middle of a federal class action lawsuit regarding the physical conditions of state jails and prisons, overcrowding, and understaffing. The suit, brought by former inmates, is seeking the use of state surplus tax dollars to address these issues. But Justice said the bills signed Monday will go a long way toward addressing the correctional crisis.

“Is this going to absolutely solve all the problems and fix everything? Maybe not,” Justice said. “This is all effort, but don’t confuse effort with accomplishment. If we need more to achieve, we have to do more. If we need to get better at how we perform our jobs and duties, then we need to get better. But we need to accomplish it. We don’t need to put a band-aid on cancer here.”

(Adams can be contacted at

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