State will not ‘switch’ Lakin inmates

Exploring additional prison option in Mason Co.

Beth Sergent - [email protected]

LAKIN — A week after residents were told the state of West Virginia would likely not be changing the inmate population at Lakin Correctional Center from female to male prisoners, that statement was confirmed by the office of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, and more.

On Friday, Tomblin’s office issued a statement saying not only would the gender of Lakin’s prison population not be changing, but the state was also exploring additional prison space in Mason County to house female inmates.

The news of exploring options to expand Lakin’s services and facilities seemed to be “new news” to local officials, including the Mason County Commission.

President of the Mason County Commission Rick Handley said news of possible expansion was not revealed to himself and County Commissioners Miles Epling and Tracy Doolittle until Friday.

“We (commissioners) hope to learn more about it soon … it was something we were unaware of,” Handley said.

News of this possible expansion was also not revealed at either of the public meetings about the Lakin issue held in Mason County.

As for the news of the facility remaining one for women, Handley said this was obviously “good news” that would allow the facility to continue to operate within, and contribute back to the community, the way it has from the start. Handley, Doolittle and Epling were all opposed to the plan to shift the population from female to male and send the female prisoners to a refurbished Sugar Grove Naval Facility in Pendleton County.

According to the statement from Gov. Tomblin’s office, the West Virginia Division of Corrections examined renovation and operational costs for both Sugar Grove Naval Facility and for the West Virginia National Guard facility in Point Pleasant as potential sites for housing female inmates. The statement added, while additional due diligence regarding the Point Pleasant site is ongoing, an initial review of the facilities showed the state would save significant dollars both in upgrades and in operational costs by utilizing the Mason County facility.

Proposed upgrades to Sugar Grove would have cost the state approximately $19 million, with annual operating costs of $14 million to $16 million. The proposal for the Point Pleasant site includes estimated upgrade costs of $8 million, with operational costs of $3.9 million.

In addition, Gov. Tomblin announced the state would not take possession of the Sugar Grove Naval Base and instead will work with other parties interested in that facility. As previously reported, KVC Health Systems has expressed interest in using the Sugar Grove property to serve young people transitioning out of foster care by creating a career college. That usage would require the approval of the federal General Services Administration, which is responsible for disposing of the site, Tomblin’s office said.

“We greatly appreciate the federal government’s offer to transfer ownership of the Sugar Grove Naval Base to West Virginia,” Gov. Tomblin said. “After careful deliberation, we believe it is in the best interest of the state to consider housing additional female inmates closer to the existing population while other interested parties consider how to best use the Sugar Grove property.”

Additional female inmates could be housed at the current National Guard site, which would allow the Division of Corrections to greatly reduce the number of female inmates currently held in regional jails, according to Tomblin’s office.

“The female inmate population is our fastest growing segment in West Virginia,” Gov. Tomblin said. “This plan provides the most cost-effective means of managing that growth.”

“I’m really happy about it, I think it’s the right decision,” Delegate Scott Cadle (R-13th), who lives in Mason County and whose district the prison falls in, said about the decision to keep Lakin the way it is. “There’s talk about expanding and this will mean more jobs, which is a good thing, but the bottom line is, we need to retain and keep employees. We’re going to have to give them more money and look at that this session. Some of these correctional officers qualify for welfare benefits due to low pay. It’s a no-brainer for the state to increase their wage.”

Delegate Jim Butler (R-14th) is also from Mason County and, along with Cadle, Delegate Mike Ihle (13th) and state Sens. Mike Hall (R-4th) and Mitch Carmichael (R-4th), all opposed the inmate switch.

“I am happy to hear from the governor’s office that he has decided to keep the women’s prison in Lakin, rather than converting it to a men’s prison as was discussed,” Butler said. “It was important that so many people in the community contacted me to voice their concerns. That overwhelming message allowed me to make a clear statement to the governor that we were not in favor of the proposed change.”

Sen. Hall, who publicly spoke out against the plan to convert the base into a men’s prison, last week said he would continue to advocate for KVC Health Systems to take ownership of the base.

Though the possibility of more jobs is welcome to many, some residents who live near the National Guard Armory located north of Point Pleasant have also not had a say in the proposal at this point, as it was just revealed to local officials who are awaiting more details.

Exploring additional prison option in Mason Co.

Beth Sergent

[email protected]

Reach Beth Sergent at [email protected] or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.

Reach Beth Sergent at [email protected] or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.