POINT PLEASANT — Local officials are hoping for a large crowd at next week’s public meeting regarding a proposal by the West Virginia Division of Corrections to change the Lakin Correctional Center from a female to male inmate population.
The meeting is at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Mason County Courthouse, either in the county commission meeting room on the second floor, or the courtroom on the third floor, depending on how many people show up. State Sen. Mike Hall (R-4th) will also be in attendance. Hall, who is the chair of the state senate finance committee, was unable to attend the informational meeting about Lakin held by the county commission earlier this summer due to illness.
Invitations have also been extended to all local legislators, including Sen. Mitch Carmichael (R-4th), and delegates Mike Ihle (R-13th), Scott Cadle (R-13th) and Jim Butler (R-14th).
Former state senator and local businessman Charles Lanham also says he plans on being at the meeting. Lanham does not support the DOC’s plan.
Prior to the prison being built, both Lanham and the late Jack Fruth were approached by then State Sen. Oshel Craigo to research whether people in Mason County would be receptive to it, Lanham said. At the time, Lanham said he and Fruth found no opposition to a women’s prison being established, though they did find opposition to a men’s prison being placed in the county.
During a meeting hosted by the Mason County Commission earlier this summer with county commissioners, DOC officials, local legislators, staff and employees at Lakin, Commissioner Miles Epling recalled the days when the prison was being developed and built. Epling said he remembers the people of Mason County being sold on the facility as being for female offenders only and that it would stay that way. Epling stressed he felt that promise should be honored. Carmichael, Cadle, Ihle and Butler all expressed opposition and misgivings about the plan as well.
The county commission has written to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin coming out against the plan and Lanham says he plans to do the same.
“This (Lakin) has been operated very successfully and I don’t know why we want to change it and move it to Pendleton County,” Lanham said.
Earlier this summer, DOC Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told the Mason County Commission the DOC had 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, earlier this summer, 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.
At that meeting earlier this summer, Rubenstein said the federal government solicited bids from the state concerning the property and the DOC was informed it had been awarded the bid. Now, the decision lies with Tomblin as to if the project moves forward or dies.
When looking at making changes at Lakin, Rubenstein said the women didn’t need the number of, and types of, cells currently 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. The cost to refurbish the facility at Sugar Grove for female inmates is estimated at $19 million.
There have also been concerns in the community about the DOC being able to fill all the positions needed to house the male population because if the facility makes the change in that inmate population, more personnel are required for male prisoners. Some in the community have expressed concerns about the safety of employees at Lakin if the change occurs in regards to adequate staffing and filling posts. This proposal has also brought up a discussion on the need to address pay scales for correctional officers which many feel are substandard and lead to poor retention.
Some in the community have also questioned why male inmates cannot be housed in the upgraded Pendleton County facility?
Many, including the county commission, are hoping to have that question and many more addressed and noted for Gov. Tomblin at next week’s meeting, prior to the governor making his decision.
With the base pulling out from Pendleton County, at least one delegate from that area has expressed his support for the prison and the jobs it would sustain in that county.
Reach Beth Sergent at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.