RALEIGH COUNTY, WV (WVNS) — West Virginia’s regional jail system has one of the highest inmate death rates in the nation, with Reuters reporting for every 1,000 inmates, there are 2.23 deaths – the highest among 44 states in the study.

The national average is 1.46.

More than half of the deaths happen before the prisoner spends 30 days in a regional jail, according to ACLU.

Experts said state jails are overcrowded because of statewide laws favoring incarceration over rehabilitation and treatment for those who commit non-violent crime.

But there could also be another factor at play.

A spokeswoman for the Coalition of Public Safety Officers said there are more than 1,000 vacancies within state correctional institutions. The staffing shortage could be putting guards and support staff, along with incarcerated people, at higher risk.

She said it’s a factor state lawmakers could address in the long-term by giving correctional officers a pay model and retirement package similar to that of federal correctional officers or West Virginia State Police.

“There needs to be that continuous bump up in pay so that we can be competitive with the feds, with other professions that these folks could leave and go to, or, surrounding states,” said Elaine Harris, Communications Workers of America (CWA) International Staff Representative, who also represents Coalition of Public Safety Officers.

Christian Martine, a Democratic Delegate candidate, said it is critical for lawmakers to intervene in what many say is a human rights crisis in the jail system.

Martine held a press conference at Southern Regional Jail (SRJ) after 46-year-old Alvis Shrewsbury of Wyoming County died at SRJ on September 18, 2022. Shrewsbury had been in the jail for 19 days, awaiting trial on a second offense DUI charge.

“I call on Governor Justice, please, call a special session of the legislature. We’re not afraid to do it, you know, in West Virginia,” said Martine. “So, please, call it, because people are losing their lives, and it’s only a matter of time before a correctional officer or an inmate lose their lives, again.”

Elaine Harris with the CWA agreed a special session could be helpful.

“Now would be a perfect time,” she noted. “The legislature representatives have said, ‘Here’s money, there’s a surplus of money,’ and I would look at this as an investment.”