Corrections: Legislators must address prison shortages

Wheeling resident Betsy Jividen, a veteran at the U.S. Attorney’s office, is taking on one of the most challenging jobs in West Virginia.

Jividen is Gov. Jim Justice’s choice to become new commissioner of the state Division of Corrections. In that post, she oversees West Virginia’s prison system.

For 37 years as a member of the staff of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia, Jividen proved she can handle demanding jobs. Three different U.S. attorneys had high enough regard for her to name her First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the region. She served as acting U.S. attorney during much of last year.

But she is tackling her new job during a genuine crisis. Both the prisons and regional jail system suffer from a severe shortage of corrections officers.

Two actions by the governor make the extent of the problem clear. Late last year, he authorized use of National Guard troops, if necessary, to staff correctional facilities. In addition, Justice issued an order regarding annual leave accrued by prison and jail personnel.

Normally, corrections officers and staff may not be permitted to carry over all unused leave from year to year. If they don’t take their vacation days, they lose them. But the staffing shortage has been so serious many prison and jail personnel have been unable to take all their leave, through no fault of their own. Justice’s order allows them to carry it over into this year.

A shortage of trained corrections officers is serious stuff. It can put some inmates and, perhaps, the public at risk. It makes the task of those officers who are present more risky.

It is no mystery why there is a shortage. Their pay is not competitive enough to attract and retain good men and women.

Clearly, one of the top priorities of lawmakers in this legislative session must be dealing with the crisis. They simply must provide pay rates adequate to bring people into corrections work and keep them there.

Otherwise, Jividen may find herself dealing not just with a new job, but with a serious catastrophe in state prisons.