West Virginia Poised to Join Shameful Trend of Shipping Prisoners Out-of-State

In October we caught wind that West Virginia Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein is looking to transfer and house up to 400 prisoners out-of-state in attempts to alleviate prison overcrowding at home.  

According to the West Virginia Gazette, representatives from two private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Community Education Centers (CEC) — attended a mandatory pre-bid conference and were able to submit bids for the contract on November 5th.  The conference was open to other state departments interested in bidding on the deal, but only the two private contractors attended to express interest.  The opening of those bids has been postponed twice. They are now set for December 5th.    

Interestingly, the news from West Virginia came in the same month that we released our new report, Locked Up and Shipped Away: Interstate Prisoner Transfers and the Private Prison Industry, to shed light on the costly and inhumane practice of transferring prisoners across state lines to private for-profit prisons across the country.  The report examines the four states that currently house prisoners in out-of-state CCA private prisons — California, Hawai’i, Vermont, and Idaho — and argues this practice is impeding prisoners’ right to rehabilitation by diminishing their ties to family and community, which compromises rather than enhances the public good.  At the same time, mass out-of-state transfers are allowing state leaders to shirk responsibility to implement sustainable solutions to prison overcrowding while CCA continues to profit handsomely from taxpayer dollars.   

Unique to West Virginia, however, is that the out-of-state transfers must happen on a voluntary basis due to a clause in the state’s constitution that bans the “banishment” of prisoners across state lines.  Currently, overflow state prisoners are being housed in regional jails that lack rehabilitative programming that prisoners need to qualify for parole.  According to Commissioner Rubenstein, the out-of-state facilities must be able to provide these programs.

So, prisoners must make a choice: Either languish in regional jails with no programming and forfeit your chances of receiving parole OR get shipped out-of-state far from your family, loved ones, and support network.  That certainly doesn’t seem like much of a “choice.”  

Commissioner Rubenstein has also said, “[Sending prisoners out-of-state] is viewed as a temporary measure to get control of the population.”  According to our report, officials in the states we highlighted have all sung that same tune.  Today, however, those states have been shipping prisoners across state lines for seven to 18 years with no end in sight.

Grassroots Leadership hopes that West Virginia won’t join the ranks of states that ship prisoners away, slapping a costly, inefficient bandaid on a problem that needs real solutions.  And, fortunately, we’re not the only ones.  

George Castelle and Ronni Sheets with the Kanawha County Public Defenders' Office have filed a petition with the state Supreme Court for a motion to compel the Division of Corrections to comply with a long-ignored 2002 court order to reduce prison overcrowding.  The state’s prison population is already modestly falling.

According to the petition, there are several steps the Division of Corrections can take to reduce the state prison population more quickly such as extra good time credits, commuting sentences, and accelerating parole.  

Based on the findings in our latest report, shipping prisoners across state lines to for-profit prisons is detrimental criminal justice policy that hurts families and perpetuates our nation’s mass incarceration crisis.  West Virginia officials would be wise to avoid making that mistake, and instead prioritize sustainable solutions to the state’s overcrowded prison system.