Last updated: July 24. 2013 4:27AM - 375 Views

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Low pay, understaffing and overcrowding are creating safety concerns at West Virginia’s prisons.

Media outlets report that union and corrections officials discussed the issues Monday during an interim legislative oversight committee meeting.

Jack Ferrell, a Communications Workers of America organizer, told lawmakers that low pay for correctional officers is the biggest problem and has led to high turnover. Officers also suffer from burnout due to working long hours.

“The biggest issue is pay,” said Ferrell, a former correctional officer. “You can’t put people out there doing these jobs and paying them pennies. It’s a dangerous job. I’d say 90 percent of correctional people have high blood pressure. The divorce rate is high. A lot of them are using alcohol.”

In June, state prisons had a total 150 vacancies. The monthly turnover rate is sometimes as high as 10 percent, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told lawmakers.

While low pay is a factor, Rubenstein said that there are others that result in burnout and turnoverIn addition to working long hours, officers often are also required to work overtime. Experienced officers take jobs at federal prisons, where pay and benefits are better.

Another problem is the lack of private or semi-private cells at prisons. At the Huttonsville Correctional Facility, many inmates live in a dormitory-style setting because there aren’t enough private or semi-private cells. That makes it difficult to isolate potentially dangerous inmates, Rubenstein said.

“It’s a nightmare. I won’t try to minimize that point,” he said.

Both Ferrell and Rubenstein said that most inmates behave. But they said that some inmates are troublemakers, which puts correctional officers at risk.

“Most correctional officers tell you the inmates run the prison,” Ferrell said. “You’re just there to keep order. At any time, they could take that prison if they wanted. Most are on good behavior. You’ve got about 10 percent of them that are not.”

Rubenstein said that the Division of Corrections is working with the West Virginia National Guard to get returning soldiers jobs in state prisons.

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