MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Just last month, Amin Matthews was arrested for possession of marijuana and incarcerated in the West Virginia Eastern Regional Jail, one of the many overcrowded jails in the state. Matthews, a 21-year-old Martinsburg resident, ended up sharing with another prisoner a cell that was built to hold only one inmate. In fact, Matthews’ entire pod of cells was overcrowded, he says, creating tension among the inmates.
“There were fights all the time,” he says. “My first night [there] they had to move this guy out because he got his eye knocked out of his socket.”
Prison overcrowding has been a problem in West Virginia for years. In January 2013, an altercation in the overcrowded North Central Regional Jail led to the death of a 19-year-old Dunbar man. Jeron Hawkins had been convicted of first-degree murder in a 2011 shooting death outside Karma nightclub in downtown Morgantown. Hawkins, who was only 18 years old at the time of the crime, was incarcerated in North Central because of overcrowding in the state prisons. Anthony Young, a federal inmate who was also housed there while awaiting sentencing for his role in a 2006 slaying at the Hazelton penitentiary, attacked Hawkins, who died the next day from his injuries.
The death of Hawkins and other prisoner violence prompted state officials to pass the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2013. The law provided for nearly $2.5 million in funding to reduce the number of repeat offenders by increasing workforce training programs and creating more community-based substance abuse treatment services throughout the state. The state also provided an additional $600,000 for new drug addiction outpatient services in the Northern and Eastern panhandles of West Virginia.
While these programs have had success in slightly reducing the number of prisoners in certain state and regional facilities, West Virginia’s prisons and regional jails remain badly overcrowded, with some facilities having a ratio of prisoners to beds that is larger than many neighboring states.
The total number of West Virginia inmates under the jurisdiction of the state has increased by over 500, from 5,328 in July 2013 to 5,865 as of February 23, according to the West Virginia Division of Corrections. In the regional jails, the total population has increased from 4,082 inmates in December to 4,173 as of mid-February, according to WV Regional Jail & Correctional Facility Authority.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world with 716 people for every 100,000 residents behind bars. And 22 states, West Virginia included, have an even higher incarnation rate than the U.S. average. A study done by the Prison Policy Initiative that compared the U.S. with other countries found that West Virginia would rank 10th in the world for its incarceration rate.
The incarceration rate in West Virginia is 895 per every 100,000 residents. By comparison, neighboring Pennsylvania has 770 prisoners per every 100,000 residents.
Despite such overcrowding, Chris Standleman, director of communications for Governor Tomblin, says the Justice Reinvestment programs are working, “Thanks to Justice Reinvestment and related ongoing initiatives, the backlog in the jails that helped prompt this proposal has been reduced by several hundred inmates,” Standleman said.
However, Robert Bastress, a law professor at West Virginia University, says the state’s current initiatives are not enough. He argues that sentencing reform is also needed to help reduce the prison overcrowding.
“There are still pockets in the state where judges are sentencing individuals to fairly lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes,” Bastress said. “I think that is one way to continue to reduce the population.”
Bastress said key felony provisions in the state code result in unusually long prison sentences. For example, the sentence for an armed robbery conviction is 10 years to life in West Virginia, a lot longer than other states, according to Bastress.
“The problem with prison overcrowding runs smack into the persistence of certain attitudes that there is a necessity to be tough on crime,” he says.
Bastress said the state’s legislative leadership has enacted some sentencing reforms but did not adopt all of the measures that the West Virginia Law Institute had recommended in a report it released in 2010.
“Prisoners have no political clout,” Bastress said. “They are out of sight, out of mind. The few advocating for them on their behalf [amount to] a pretty small voice.”
For his part, Amin Matthews says he spent 10 days in jail after he and a friend and him were arrested for possession of marijuana (police had found a half pound of the wacky weed in the house they were visiting.) Matthews was charged with possession with intent to deliver, conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He says he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that the marijuana in the house he was in wasn’t his. But he didn’t have the money to make the $130,000 in bail.
I never thought I’d end up in jail for something like this,” he says.
While most of the people in the pod where Matthews was held were in for drug-related charges, there was one inmate who was incarcerated for more serious charges including armed robbery and attempted murder.
“I don’t think this guy should have been in there with us,” said Matthews. “I was always watching out for myself, and watching out for Ty [his friend].”
Matthews is one of the thousands of people who have served prison time for drug-related charges in West Virginia. In West Virginia there have been more marijuana arrests on an annual basis than arrests for all other drugs combined.
“I think there is no question that that’s a major factor in the overcrowding,” Bastress says.
The charges against Matthews were eventually dropped and he was released. Now back in Martinsburg, he hopes to not ever find himself behind bars again.
“Everyone sees what it’s like [jail] on TV and s***,” said Matthews. “But once you actually get there, it’s just like a whole different story.”