49th-lowest salaries drive W.Va. prisons’ turnover

PRUNTYTOWN (AP) — In southern West Virginia, they often go to the coal mines. In the northern counties, they go to the oil and gas industry. But everywhere, corrections officers are fleeing the state’s regional jails and prisons for better-paying jobs.

With the 49th-lowest starting salary in the nation, it’s no surprise.

“I have officers on food stamps,” says Warden David Ballard, who on any given day has dozens of vacancies at the state’s maximum-security prison, the Mount Olive Correctional Center.

West Virginia’s starting salary for a full-time correctional officer is just $22,584 — ahead of only Mississippi, where they start about $500 lower — and less than $800 below the federal poverty level for a family of four.

The American Correctional Association says West Virginia also has the nation’s worst inmate-to-guard ratio in prisons and ranks in the top 10 states for turnover. The Division of Corrections says nearly 17 percent of its employees quit last year.

At the same time, the state is dealing with a decades-long problem of inmate overcrowding, often leaving inexperienced and exhausted guards to manage an ever-growing and increasingly violent population.

At Mount Olive, the shortage is so severe that Ballard has imposed a mandatory 60-hour week. It’s not ideal, he acknowledges, but officers generally prefer it to other schedules he’s experimented with because they can get two consecutive days off.

The turnover rates are so high that in two years, a guard can make it halfway up the seniority ladder at the Pruntytown Correctional Center in Taylor County, says Sgt. Rodney Richter.

After 12 years, Richter makes $32,000. If he took a job with the federal system, he says, he’d make $48,000.

The state correctional system has become a training ground for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which has six facilities in West Virginia. Pruntytown program manager Robert Murphy took a job at one but returned for the state benefits and the sense of camaraderie.

“To me, it’s a rewarding job,” he says. “A lot of these guys are looking for help. They’re looking to succeed when they get out, and we can help them do that.”

But, he says, “You can do this job and make what you’d make at Wal-Mart — and with a lot less stress.”

Corrections officials push for pay raises constantly to help with retention, but they make little progress.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein says he’s really not sure why correctional officer raises are such a hard sell.

“All I can tell you is, I basically talk with pride about what our folks do, what we’re faced with,” he says. “I know a lot of other agencies have needs, and legitimate needs … but this is a different ball game.”

In prisons, “it’s not good to have a lot of turnover” or inexperienced people, he said.

The Communications Workers of America lobbies on behalf of some 1,400 correctional officers, but it can’t formally negotiate because West Virginia does not allow collective bargaining for state employees.

“We don’t have collective bargaining. We have collective begging,” says spokeswoman Elaine Harris, whose members compete with other public employees such as teachers. And there are far more teachers than prison guards.

But the state is already spending millions on overtime. So, Harris reasons, “Why not raise the pay to where we can attract and retain good officers?”

Officers be at least 18, and have a high school diploma or GED and one year’s work experience of any kind. But with salaries so low, recruiting is a hard sell, especially for the older workers with “life skills” that North Central Regional Jail Administrator George Trent wants.

“You’ve got to be able to have somebody cuss you out … and turn around and be able to work with them tomorrow,” he says.

Brian Webb, a 28-year-old Navy veteran who worked at Mount Olive for about two years, says the low bar for hiring results too often in officers with the wrong attitude. That, he said, contributes to conflict with inmates.

“They say, ‘These people are the scum of the earth,’ and the inmates sense that,” Webb says. Higher wages, he argues, would help keep good employees and raise the level of professionalism.

“I think a corrections officer in the state should make at least as much as a state trooper,” he says. “It’s a state job, and it’s a dangerous job.”

It’s also an aggravating job.

In the segregation units at Mount Olive, where problem inmates are locked down 20-23 hours a day, the challenges are especially intense. Driven by frustration, boredom or rage, inmates kick for hours at the locks on their doors until they shatter. They clog their toilets, deliberately flooding their cells just to get out.

“You have inmates all day yelling at you, throwing urine and feces at you, yelling they’re going to rape your wife …” says Ballard, “and all that for $22,000 a year.”

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