By TOM BREEN
The Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Prison guards in West Virginia have gained some unexpected allies in their push for higher pay: inmates, including a self-proclaimed poet serving a life sentence for murder.
In a handful of letters to several lawmakers, inmates say the state's overcrowded and understaffed prisons are unsafe and the situation will only deteriorate unless the Legislature gives guards a raise.
Gov. Joe Manchin has proposed a $1,000 across-the-board raise plus incentives for new hires that would cost roughly $2.2 million the first year. (The starting salary is $20,124.)
But officers want $5,000 raises, possibly over several years, which would cost the state an estimated $24 million, according to a union that works on behalf of the guards but does not actually represent them.
Roundtree Goodman, an inmate at Mount Olive Correctional Complex, wrote his poetic plea to legislators from a guard's perspective:
"I will now take a mental pause, another day at MOCC without fanfare or audible applause, my nerves now raw and tormented from mental thoughts that will forever haunt, I now languish in a world of need, with less pay, for sorrows that must one day be freed."
At the state's last count, a year ago, there were 947 guards, plus about 150 vacancies, with rapid turnover of nearly one in five officers in 2005. West Virginia's prison population has climbed by about 1,100 inmates over the past five years to more than 5,300.
State Sen. Shirley Love, who received some of the letters, said he believes the sentiments are genuine, rather than an attempt to win favor from the guards.
"They're saying they're concerned for their own safety," he said. "Somebody could slap them around, you know, and nobody could do anything about it if the guards aren't there."
Elaine Harris, a representative of the Communication Workers union, said the union did not put the inmates up to it. "These people want an environment that's safe," she said.
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The letters, which Love said came from inmates at several of the state's lockups, are being circulated at legislative hearings.