POINT PLEASANT — Residents packed the courtroom on Thursday for a public meeting on a proposal to change the Lakin Correctional Center’s inmate population from female to male.
Though many came prepared to fight to keep the prison as a facility for women, it appears, at least for now, that voices from Mason County have been heard in Charleston.
State Sen. Mike Hall (R-4th), who is also the senate finance committee chair, said he’d spoken to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin about the matter this week and interpreted that conversation as meaning the prison would likely stay as it is in Mason County. In fact, he said he took it as a “clear indication” this (changing the population) was not going to happen. Hall also opposes any changes at Lakin.
Hall said he advocated for the KVC group out of Kansas to continue pursuit of the Sugar Grove Naval Base property in Pendleton County to build a community college assisting foster children who age out of foster care at 18. Hall said KVC were the initial bidders on the property though the state of West Virginia was eventually awarded said property to utilize it as a prison for female inmates. Tomblin must decide whether or not to accept the property for the purpose of modifying the base for a prison by Sept. 4. Hall said though KVC was not awarded the bid there was a way the organization could still pursue it though no further details were divulged.
Prior to Hall speaking, former state senator and businessman Oshel Craigo, spoke about how the prison got its start, saying he originally approached the people of Mason County about the project while in office. He said “not one voice” from Mason County was raised in opposition to the prison being a female facility but that could not be said for a men’s facility. Craigo said he felt the prison was there in part due to the position he held and if it took marching to Charleston to make sure it stayed the way it was sold to the public, so be it.
“That prison will stay right there and it should stay there,” Craigo said, telling Hall to play hardball if he had to as finance committee chairman to ensure promises made to the community about what type of facility was within the community, were kept.
Also at the meeting was Jim Rubenstein, commissioner for the West Virginia Division of Corrections. Both Hall and Craigo praised Rubenstein for his work in corrections, saying he was “not the bad guy” to the crowd. Rubenstein did speak, talking about a prison population of over 7,000 state wide and alluding to the proposal being intended to address the needs of an unfortunate growing business when it came to corrections.
He said the female population was the fastest growing in corrections with 545 prisoners at Lakin as of Thursday. He spoke about those sentenced to prison who are serving time in regional jails, waiting on a bed to open up at a facility and waiting on resources not available in a regional facility. The idea was to spend $19 million on refurbishing the naval base for a female prison with existing structures which were more suitable for females, and dormitory-style living, as opposed to the cells at Lakin which were reportedly more suited to a male population, according to the DOC. Rubenstein also praised the programs at Lakin and the way the facility has fit into the community and though he said he couldn’t speak for the governor, he felt this situation would hopefully be “put to rest” next week.
Also speaking, Delegates Scott Cadle (R-13th) and Jim Butler (R-14th), both opposing the idea of changes at the prison. Cadle also brought up the need to address raising the pay scale for correctional officers and said it would likely be addressed “this session.” This was met with applause from the crowd. Butler said it often took people speaking out to get anything done in government.
The meeting was organized by the Mason County Commission with Commissioners Tracy Doolittle and Rick Handley in attendance, along with County Administrator John Gerlach. Commissioners Doolittle, Handley and Miles Epling have attempted to get the word out about the proposal and have received massive public feedback against the changes. Commissioners have all opposed the proposed changes.
Speaking on behalf of the commission, Handley also praised the contributions Lakin has made to the community, mentioning educational programs at the facility. Also, an unidentified person from the audience praised changes Warden Lori Nohe has made at the facility to benefit the female prisoners.
Though it has not been finalized, it appeared from the meeting something is in the works to keep the people of Mason County happy and Lakin “as is” and give those in Pendleton County some kind of opportunity to utilize the base – though that option was not revealed at the meeting.
Reach Beth Sergent at email@example.com or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.