CHARLESTON, W. Va. — The West Virginia Regional Jail Authority is revamping internal procedures to protect itself from frivolous inmate lawsuits that have cost taxpayers more than $7 million in the past three years.
Over the past few weeks, jail officials have transferred their entire population of state-sentenced female inmates to one jail to cut down on dozens of frivolous lawsuits.
"We've made several changes, and there are more to come to try to protect our staff, inmates and the authority from meritless claims," said Joe DeLong, acting executive director of the Regional Jail Authority.
Jails and prisons face numerous lawsuits each year by inmates who claim they've been mistreated. Those lawsuits have the potential to drag out in court over several years and rack up high legal fees.
"The overwhelming majority of these claims are sexually based, and the overwhelming majority of those sexually based lawsuits are from the state-sentenced female population that have been put in the jails," DeLong said.
DeLong said the authority has 63 cases pending against it. Some date back several years.
"There are a lot of them that are baseless, I really believe that," DeLong said. "I think, to some degree, we've done a poor job as a Regional Jail Authority from protecting ourselves from the claims that have no merit."
The main problem has been when incarcerated females come into contact or are alone with male corrections officers. With no surveillance or other witnesses around, the situations are ripe for either bad behavior or false claims.
In some of the cases, evidence against an officer has been found. In those situations the officer is dismissed and the information is turned over to local prosecutors.
False claims, however, can't be dealt with swiftly.
"Courts are very, very reluctant to take claims that are frivolous and throw them out, especially sexual harassment claims," DeLong said.
Few cases have made it to trial.
"The lion's share, almost all of them, have been settled," DeLong said.
That's because, in most cases, the authority found it cheaper to settle than to fight.
"Some of those settlements we have clear fault and we've had to adjust our processes and make changes," DeLong said, "but there's also just a whole lot of them that are completely without merit that are being settled just because we don't want to pay to litigate them."
Settlements for the more frivolous claims have generally resulted in payouts of $6,000 to $8,000.
The authority carries insurance against legal claims, but DeLong said payouts have far outstripped premiums.
"Over the past three years, we've paid about $2 million for liability insurance, and paid out about $7 million in claims - clearly that's not going to be sustainable," he said.
With payouts more than three times the premium rate, DeLong said it wouldn't be long before the authority's liability premiums start to skyrocket.
That would mean higher rates for counties and local governments, which pay fees to the authority to house inmates.
Transferring state-sentenced female inmates was the authority's first step in addressing the problem.
The women have been moved to the Tygart Valley Regional Jail, which currently has 15 female officers on staff. They are now the primary officers to come in contact with the female prisoners.
By cutting back on a female inmate's contact with a male corrections officer, there's less opportunity for sexual harassment, real or alleged.
The authority also is working with insurance providers to find ways to limit legal liability at all 10 jails, DeLong said.
The authority is beginning to work with outside contractors to install surveillance cameras in all sections leading to prisoner areas. The cameras will document anyone entering or leaving the section.
The agency also will install recording equipment on all intercoms and internal jail communication lines so officials can monitor officer-inmate communications.
DeLong said in the sexual harassment claims for which an officer was found to have fault, some of the behavior began with conversations on jail communication lines.
"Those inappropriate conversations ultimately led to inappropriate actions," he said.
With the authority taking steps to reduce opportunities for baseless claims, DeLong said he's now instructing authority attorneys to fight frivolous claims.
"We're going to start fighting these claims," he said. "If we have to spend a little more on the front end to put out the message that we're not going to take this, then I think that's worth it."
DeLong said the frivolous claims don't just hurt the authority financially. They can hurt the good officers willing to work in such stressful positions.
"I want to make sure the people we house in jails are being treated fairly," he said, "but there's also the human element of protecting our good staff who work hard and do nothing wrong from having their reputations damaged by baseless accusations.
"It's not fair for someone who shows up to work every day and does their job well for what they get paid and then gets pulled into these damaging situations," he said. "I think we need to fight a little bit for their integrity as well - we owe that to our staff."