Commission updated on Lakin Prison proposal

The Mason County Commission hosts an informal meeting about the proposed changes to Lakin Correctional Center by the West Virginia Division of Corrections.

Commissioner Tracy Doolittle questions West Virginia Division of Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein on the DOC’s proposal to shift the Lakin Correctional Center’s population from female to male.

POINT PLEASANT — “I believe we’re all very proud of the Lakin facility now … it gives a lot back to community. I guess we’re trying to figure out why are we changing something when it’s not broken?”

This was a question posed by Commissioner Tracy Doolittle to West Virginia Division of Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein at Wednesday’s informal meeting about proposed changes to the Lakin Correctional Center, namely, switching the female population to a male population and its implications.

Joining Rubenstein at the meeting, were additional DOC personnel, including Warden Lori Nohe and other Lakin staff members. Also at the meeting, Delegates Scott Cadle, Mike Ihle, Jim Butler and Sen. Mitch Carmichael. Hosting the roundtable were Mason County Commissioners Doolittle, Miles Epling and Rick Handley.

As previously reported, the DOC has bid on property in Pendleton County, specifically the naval base at Sugar Grove that the federal government is closing in September. The proposal is to purchase the property and convert it into a female prison with the capacity to hold 613 inmates. The Lakin female population would be shifted to the Sugar Grove site and a male population would be housed at Lakin which, as of Wednesday, was housing 516 female inmates with minimum, medium and maximum security needs. If the plan is approved, it would be phased in over a period of three years and at some point, the population at Lakin would temporarily be both male and female as the transition occurs and upgrades to the new facility at Sugar Grove are made.

Upgrades to the Sugar Grove facility are estimated to cost around $19 million, Rubenstein said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Rubenstein said the federal government solicited bids from the state concerning the property and last month, the DOC was informed it had been awarded the bid. Now, the decision lies with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin as to if the project moves forward or dies.

As for how Rubenstein answered the “if it isn’t broken why fix it” question posed by Doolittle, he said he needed to look at where the needs of the DOC were. When looking at Lakin, he said the women didn’t need the number of cells at the facility though men, who would be medium-security inmates, are better suited for a facility of that nature. He added there would also be minimum-security males at Lakin as well.

Doolittle asked if the female correctional officers currently at Lakin would keep their jobs, to which Rubenstein said, “Absolutely.” He said all correctional officers receive the same training, regardless of gender. However, it was also noted the 40 new positions that would be created by the switch to a male population would be brought about because male prisons require more posts.

Rubenstein said as far as additional security at Lakin, should the plan be green-lighted, a hot-wire security system would be placed on the fence at the facility to alert correctional officers if an offender touches it and where, which amounts to having an officer on the fence’s perimeter. Other than that, he said there would be no real physical changes to the facility. He also said Lakin has a lot of “security bells and whistles” and was more suited to a male population. He added community programs where inmates do community service would stay in place, only with the minimum-security male offenders participating.

Rubenstein said there are 1,100 offenders currently serving their prison sentences in regional jails who will wait around 11 months to actually get one of the 5,850 beds the DOC offers. He also said the female population has grown significantly. He added the cost of building an entirely new prison facility is in the neighborhood of $150 million to $250 million.

“There was a lot of concern years ago when we got Lakin,” Epling said. “And I remember Senator Craigo and Delegate Hall promising the people of Mason County this would always remain a female facility — always. Now you want to change it to a male prison and we’re to believe it will never be anything more than a medium-security facility because you all tell us that?”

Epling expressed concern over DOC returning years from now and housing “hard-core” inmates at Lakin because of changing needs.

Rubenstein said there were only two facilities, Mount Olive or Huttonsville, equipped to house maximum security male offenders.

“We really didn’t know until a month ago we were the recipient of the base in Pendleton County,” Rubenstein said.

“So this is a go?” Epling said.

“That is our plan,” Rubenstein said, stressing the final call was with the governor. “We would want to work with the commission, legislators, the community, we’re not closing anything down. Nobody’s losing jobs.”

A member of the public attending the meeting asked Rubenstein if he had run a feasibility study with the people of Mason County before starting the endeavor and he said he had not. The man also said he didn’t want this affecting his property value, which was an issue the commissioners heard about from other residents via letters.

Sen. Carmichael said he was not in favor of the plan and had expressed this to the DOC and the governor’s office. He said he agreed with the statement by Epling that promises made should be promises that are kept.

“I am a vociferous opponent of changing Lakin,” Carmichael said.

Del. Scott Cadle echoed that sentiment and said he wanted to sponsor a bill to raise the pay rates of correctional officers. More on this part of Wednesday’s discussion in an upcoming article in the Point Pleasant Register.

Del. Jim Buter said he was also “opposed to the change at this point.” Del. Mike Ihle agreed, saying, if this was a good plan for the people of Mason County, he wasn’t convinced of it yet.

Rubenstein said he hoped to hear about the project’s fate soon from the governor’s office, but did not have a time frame. He told commissioners he, along with Warden Nohe, would follow up with them, as well as local legislators on the project’s fate.

Commissioner Doolittle said she would like for them to come back to update the commission about it. Last week, both she and Epling were frustrated by what appeared to be a lack of communication with local officials about the proposal.