While the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation was created on July 1, 2018, it traces its origins nearly to the founding of the state itself in 1863.
It was in 1866 that the Legislature authorized the construction of the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville. Previously, the new state of West Virginia had confined people convicted of felonies at the Ohio County jail in Wheeling.
With its fortress-like walls and towers, the Moundsville penitentiary remained in continuous operation until 1995 and served as the core of West Virginia’s corrections system for much of that time.
What started with the West Virginia Penitentiary expanded and evolved over time into or under the Board of Control, the Department of Public Institutions, the Department of Corrections and, most recently, the Division of Corrections within the Cabinet Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
Milestones along the way included the establishment of what has become the Huttonsville Correctional Center in 1937, as a branch of the Moundsville prison; the creation of a prison for women at Pence Springs, in 1947; the opening of one of the nation’s first work-release facilities at Charleston in 1972; and the establishment of a training academy specifically for correctional officers in 1982.
West Virginia’s network of regional jails gradually replaced what had been 55 independently operated county jails beginning in May 1989, when the Eastern Regional Jail opened in Martinsburg.
State leaders had been studying a regional approach to jails as early as the mid-1940s. The establishment of the West Virginia Regional Jail and Prison Authority in 1985 set the stage for more direct state involvement in the construction, operation and maintenance of facilities meant for pre-trial defendants and offenders sentenced for misdemeanors.
The result has been the 10 regional jails that share the same modular design and together serve all 55 counties. Like its prison counterpart, the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority became part of what is now the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety with the 1988 reorganization of executive branch agencies.
The creation of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation also marks a return of sorts for the state’s juvenile justice agency – but with a critical distinction.
Youth offenders were committed to the custody of the same commissioner as adults for most of state’s history. The Board of Control established the West Virginia Industrial Home for Boys at what is now the Pruntytown Correctional Center. It operated there from 1891 until 1983, while its counterpart for girls opened at Salem in 1899. The later facility became the coed Industrial Home for Youth in 1983.
West Virginia’s approach to juvenile justice made major gains in 1997, with the establishment of a separate Division of Juvenile Services. The state moved increasingly away from large-scale youth detention and commitment facilities when this new agency took over the former Kanawha Home for Children and began establishing its network of small-scale residential juvenile centers.
Juvenile Services opened its first community-based Youth Reporting Center in 2006 in Cabell County as an alternative to residential placement. The closing of the Industrial Home in 1993 helped to ensure that more juveniles would be served by the YRCs while remaining in their homes and communities than by the residential facilities.
The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation recognizes the importance of a juvenile agency distinct from that of adult offenders, with its Bureau of Juvenile Services separate from its Bureau of Prisons and Jails.
In its continuing pursuit of best practices, West Virginia enacted comprehensive juvenile justice reforms in 2015. Among other provisions, this legislation (Senate Bill 393) emphasized the importance of keeping at-risk youth in their homes and communities, endorsed the multi-disciplinary team approach for treating troubled juveniles, and ended the practice of placing “status offenders” in juvenile detention and commitment facilities.
These reforms dovetail with the sweeping changes to the adult offender system arising from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative of 2013 (Senate Bill 371). JRI targets the role of behavioral health and substance abuse in recidivism and crime generally. It supports proven alternatives to incarceration, including the network of Day Report Centers and treatment and recovery services for offenders.
Both sets of landmark reforms embrace scientifically validated evaluation tools to assess adult offenders and at-risk youth. They each reflect a bipartisan achievement involving all three branches of government. Both also benefitted from in-depth research and other assistance from top national experts (the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments for JRI, and The Pew Charitable Trusts for the juvenile justice reforms). Their ongoing success similarly hinge on continuing intergovernmental cooperation.