CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority is moving state-sentenced female inmates to Tygart Valley Regional Jail as part of an effort to avoid frivolous lawsuits.
The lawsuits have cost the state roughly $2 million in liability insurance premiums and $7 million in claims in the last three years. Most of the lawsuits involved have been sexually based.
Executive Director of the state jail authority Joe DeLong said they chose Tygart Valley for a number of reasons.
"When we looked into moving the overflow of state-sentenced female inmates, we noticed that the number of female inmates was the same as the number of state-sentenced male inmates at Tygart Valley," DeLong said. "That meant we could move the female inmates there with the least disruption to jail operations."
DeLong said they also moved the female inmates to Tygart Valley because the jail has approximately 15 female correctional officers. The female correctional officers will be the only officers to come into contact with the female inmates.
The jail authority is also working to have better surveillance at the jails.
"We will install surveillance cameras in the areas where the female inmates are held, especially in high risk areas," DeLong said. "That way we will be able to see what happens between the correctional officers and inmates."
There will also be audio recording surveillance installed in the intercoms that are between the inmates and correctional officers.
"I firmly believe that the majority of these cases are frivolous, but there have been exceptions to that," DeLong said. "And in those cases, these actions started through inappropriate conversations thru the intercoms and then lead to inappropriate actions. The audio recording surveillance will combat this and eliminate the inappropriate conduct."
DeLong said he believes the three-step process of housing the female inmates together with video surveillance and audio surveillance will significantly enhance protection in the jail.
"We want to protect our inmates as well as our staff," DeLong said. "We want to ensure that there is no inappropriate behavior and protect everyone involved in the jail."
DeLong said this is a small part of restructuring that the jail authority is doing.
"We are reorganizing and making a safety compliance division," DeLong said. "We want to limit liability and exposure and keep everyone safe."
The jail authority currently has 63 open cases that are pending, some of which are current and others are a few years old.
"The court and judges are reluctant to throw out sexual harassment cases—even if it is clear that the case is frivolous," DeLong said. "Sexual harassment cases make everyone nervous. We are hoping with the changes we are making, we will send a clear message that committing a crime and going to jail does not automatically give you the right to file a frivolous lawsuit."
DeLong said settlements in the lawsuits have varied anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000.
"If we did not do something to combat this problem, our insurance premiums would go up and we would have to settle and pay out more and more money to these frivolous lawsuits and that is unacceptable," DeLong said. "Our efforts to protect everyone in the jails might cost more on the front end, but they will pay out in the end."
DeLong said the surveillance efforts in Tygart Valley will continue to the other jails as well to help with workplace safety in all areas.