Officers Handling Overcrowded Eastern Regional Jail

MARTINSBURG, WV  - Prison overcrowding has been a hotly debated topic in West Virginia. For local correctional officers, it means they take a risk being heavily outnumbered every day.

"The tensions are palpable at any given time," says correctional officer Cpl. Strider Ouimet. "It's reasonable to assume any given day we can be outnumbered."

Overcrowding in West Virginia prisons has lead to tense days in regional jails.

As violent crime has risen, many convicted felons are being held in these jails, instead of the maximum security prisons where they're meant to be.

The jail has a ratio of about 500 inmates to just 15 correctional officers. It's thanks to the diligence of those officers that the situation hasn't gotten out of control.

"They rise to the challenges that we face every day and do a great job," says administrator John Sheeley.

Classification is one of biggest challenges. Higher security prisoners, including federal inmates and felons, are held separately from convicts of lesser crimes. While the jail was made to hold 296 inmates, today they're keeping 485.

Officers say with the crowding, learning longer-term inmates' habits is key. The more they know them individually, the safer the jail is.

The state a commissioned a recent study to find ways to relieve the jails. It recommeneded some alternatives, including home confinement or parole for first time or nonviolent offenders.

But for now in the state's prison system, the correctional officers here at the Eastern Regional Jail are the last line of defense.

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