Consider Private Prison Contracts

Excellent progress has been made during the past year in reducing prison overcrowding in West Virginia. Unfortunately, it remains a quadruple-digit problem, and that means state officials should be looking into new ways to ease it.

Earlier this year, it had been expected the state’s prison population would top 7,500 by this month. Instead, it is down to 6,784.

That still leaves about 1,180 convicts, who should be serving time in prison, lodged instead in regional jails that were not designed or staffed for the purpose.

Use of the regional jails creates a type of discrimination that could come back to haunt the state.

Division of Corrections Commissioner James Rubenstein noted this week that inmates being held in the jails do not have the same access to programs offered commonly in the prison system. That can hurt their chances of being approved for parole.

That is a red flag that, you can rest assured, one or more inmates being held in the jails will think about exploiting through a lawsuit against the state. Not offering convicts held in regional jails the same opportunities for rehabilitation that could help make them eligible for parole would be frowned upon by many, if not all, federal judges. That could lead to an order forcing the state to take drastic action to reduce the prison population.

Two initiatives this year have helped. First, legislators approved a program that can make some offenders eligible for early release, with intensive monitoring. Second, the old juvenile detention facility at Salem was converted for use by adult prisoners. With 388 beds, it has taken a large chunk out of the overcrowding problem.

Again, however, state officials need to be prepared to do more – and quickly, if, for example, a federal court orders it.

Contracting with private prison operations companies to take some inmates is a possibility. State officials already are looking into it and have solicited bids for such services.

Corrections officials should continue looking at that potential safety valve.

Again, much progress has been made – but West Virginia needs to be ready in the event a federal judge decides the state has not moved quickly enough.