The old WV State Penitentiary in Moundsville. If those walls could talk...
For many years, a trend in West Virginia and around the country was to build more prisons and lock up more people, often for non-violent offenses. The predictable result was prison overcrowding, excessive costs, problems with re-entry, etc.
It's gotten to the point where we can't build our way out of this. Even if construction on massive new prisons began today, the overcrowding rate wouldn't change by the time they were built unless other things changed as well.
There are welcome signs that this is starting to change. Here's an excerpt from an AP item that ran in last Sunday's Gazette-Mail:
An average of three new inmates a day entering the state's correctional system has left West Virginia with a stark choice: build new prisons or change the way it thinks about crime and punishment.
The first option is unattractive in a time when state agencies are trimming their budgets and revenue is drying up. A new prison would cost up to $200 million, according to Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein.
That leaves the second choice, which politicians have long feared will expose them to the charge of being "soft on crime,'' a tag no one wants during an election year in a conservative state.
Gov. Joe Manchin, though, is willing to risk political backlash by proposing policies he says will save the state hundreds of millions in the long run and do a better job of rehabilitating prisoners with the best chance at being productive members of society.
In the last few years, the state began a major day reporting effort as an alternative to incarceration in regional jails. Now on the agenda may be accelerated parole for non-violent, low risk offenders and increased attention to drug treatment and rehabilitation programs.
This makes sense since most people who go in are going to come out sooner or later and prisons are not generally known as places that improve behavior. A saying that has been heard more than once in statehouse circles is “We need to lock up the people we’re afraid of, not the ones we're mad at.”
(Hamlet will return tomorrow.)
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