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Old hotel has role in W.Va. prison crowding crisis

Associated Press Published: May 7, 2012
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — From the outside, the newest addition to West Virginia's correctional system looks a lot like the Holiday Inn it once was, before a highway reconfiguration in Parkersburg cut it off from most of its customers.

But the roof no longer retracts, the dining room is missing its wallpaper and the fireplace has been painted an institutional off-white.

An $8 million renovation project is winding down, and the Division of Corrections is gearing up to move 140 inmates into the work-release center this summer.

The conversion of the hotel, which closed in 2007, is the latest attempt to ease West Virginia's decades-long problem of overcrowded prisons and regional jails. The state bought the property and 22 surrounding acres for $2.2 million in 2010.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein named Pat Mirandy its warden last week, and 80 newly hired employees are going through orientation. By August, Rubenstein hopes to have 100 minimum-security prisoners moved in, four to a room.

"These are the lowest-classification inmates," he said. "They've really got one foot out the door and are heading home."

Another 40 will fill the rooms of a residential substance abuse treatment center, where counselors offer treatment of six months to a year in overcoming drug and alcohol addiction.

Drug abuse and drug-related crimes are fueling the ever-ballooning number of people in the corrections system. As of May 1, more than 6,900 were already in a state prison or awaiting transfer from an overcrowded regional jail. Experts estimate that at least 80 percent of them committed crimes related to drug or alcohol abuse.

Legislators wrangled for months over a bill that could have helped curb that growth, but House Republicans killed the bill on the final night of the session, with some lawmakers reluctant to spend money or be perceived as soft on crime.

The bill would have added 200 beds to prison-based drug treatment programs and given judges power to reduce sentences for those who complete them. It also would have imposed incremental sanctions on parole and probation violators instead of returning them to prison, and would have converted the last six months of a drug offender's sentence into early parole.

While Rubenstein waits for a permanent solution, he's doing what he can.

About a month ago, the division opened a 48-bed work camp at the Huttonsville Correctional Center. Those crews are in the community under supervision, doing jobs that range from picking up trash to painting buildings.

"It pays dividends all over," Rubenstein said.

Work-release is different: Inmates don't wear uniforms and aren't guarded.

Mirandy said the Parkersburg inmates will work for private employers, earning minimum wage and paying something toward their housing. They go through regular alcohol screening and drug testing if they appear to be using, with corrections officers conducting spot checks to confirm they're where they're supposed to be.

If they get sick, they have to pay for their medical care, Mirandy said. If they need toothpaste, they can get a pass to go to the drug store.

Mirandy, currently an associate warden at the St. Marys Correctional Center, said staff also will help them learn how to save money so they can live independently when they leave.

Wood County Commission President Blair Couch said many residents, including him, have mixed feelings about the new facility.

Most are happy a hotel that sat empty will be employing people again. It was on the market for three years, Couch said, and only the state showed any interest. But some are worried those jobs won't go to locals, and some who live nearby are concerned about "negative impacts."

They learned at a town meeting that the inmates aren't sex offenders or violent criminals, Couch said, and they understand work-release is "a way for someone who's served their time and paid their debt to society to integrate back into society."

"They do need this facility, and it has to be somewhere," Couch said. "You can't really be, 'Not in my back yard.'"

Couch oversees a Wood County community corrections program that monitors 125 people in hopes of keeping them out of the regional jails. So he understands the desire to help inmates become constructive members of society.

"Is it a good thing or a bad thing?" Couch said of the new center. "That's really a question that will be answered two years from now. But we've got to do something, and this is something."

Mirandy said the center will also house parole department staff and contract employees, allowing them to move out of leased space.

The former conference center has been converted into 13 spaces for group meetings, file storage and offices. The renovations also included construction of a secure holding cell, where any inmate who violates his conditions can be held until he's sent back to St. Marys.

That's the one window with bars on it.

Mirandy understands some people are worried, but he said inmates are already in their communities. And many business owners welcome the prospect of hiring workers they know are drug-free and held accountable.

Besides, he said, "escape" has a different meaning in work-release.

"They get on the bus and go to the Outback Steakhouse and work a shift, and then get a phone call that Mom has died or Dad is sick, and they just don't come back," he said.

"They don't climb over walls or tunnel out like 'Escape from Alcatraz,'" he said. "They walk away."


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