Zack Harold

writer/editor

‘BROKEN SYSTEM’ CAUSES HOLDUPS OFFICIAL SAYS CONTRACTOR IS TAKING TOO LONG TO PROCESS BACKGROUND CHECKS 

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on January 9, 2013.

Problems with a contractor hired to process state background checks are leaving job seekers in limbo for months and costing state businesses lots of money.

The holdups have even slowed the adoption process for some children.

Speaking at a legislative interim meeting on Tuesday, Mark Drennan, executive director of the West Virginia Behavioral Health Care Providers Association, told lawmakers that glitches with MorphoTrust have caused some employers to wait three or four months before receiving results of background checks for potential employees.

“This broken system prevents individuals from being gainfully employed,” he said.

Scott Boileau, executive director of the Alliance for Children, Inc., said parents wanting to adopt or foster children have experienced similar delays.

Background checks are required in West Virginia for anyone wanting to work with children, the elderly or the mentally ill. Anyone wanting to adopt or foster a child who has been deemed a ward of the state also is required to get a background check.

Boileau said he knows of one family that has waited nine months for the results of their background check. Other families become frustrated with the process and drop out.

“Folks are not going to put up with that,” he said.

Although problems with background checks have not slowed any active adoptions, Boileau said the slow turnaround times have kept some children in the state’s care for much longer than necessary.

“The fact is, there probably have been kids that could have been placed sooner,” he said.

The state hired MorphoTrust, previously known as L-1 Enrollment Services, in August 2011. Before that, the State Police processed all background checks.

The contract was renewed in August, even though Drennan wrote a letter to Tomblin in July warning of problems with the contractor.

Capt. Michael Corsaro of the State Police told lawmakers on Tuesday that before hiring the company, background checks sometimes would not be processed for two months or longer.

He said the Huntington State Police detachment often had so many people waiting in line for background checks that troopers could not respond to calls because they had to stay in the office and take fingerprints.

Members of the Legislature’s Select Committee on PEIA, Seniors and Long Term Care were not pleased to hear of the problems.

“In an age of technology, it’s not acceptable to have to wait that long,” Delegate Larry Williams, D-Preston, said.

Williams is the co-chairman of the committee.

Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, said she knows of businesses in her district that have waited two or three months to receive the results of a background check.

“By then, somebody has already found another job,” she said.

Hiring MorphoTrust was supposed to free up troopers for police work and reduce the turnaround time for background checks.

“Our excitement quickly turned in the opposite direction, to agitation,” Drennan said.

Drennan said there were often problems with the company’s digital fingerprint system, so MorphoTrust would take old-fashioned ink fingerprints. The company purchased a scanner to digitize those inked cards, but the device did not work.

Drennan said everyone who had their fingerprints taken while MorpoTrust was using that scanner had to go back and get new prints.

He said many providers have returned to inking fingerprints themselves and sending the cards to MorphoTrust for processing. It’s the same process as before the state hired the company, he said, except it costs businesses $9 more per background check.

There are other problems, too.

Drennan said the company does not cash checks in a timely manner, knocking many businesses’ bank ledgers out of whack. MorphoTrust also bills providers for background checks not connected with their business, and contesting the charges takes a long time, he said.

One member of his association received a $12,000 bill from the company, though it insists it owes only $8,000, Drennan said. The disagreement has dragged on for four months.

Drennan also sent a letter to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Tuesday regarding MorphoTrust’s service.

“We have tried to make this work for more than a year and, frankly, have given up on this vendor,” he wrote.

“They promised an electronic process that reduces errors and improves access. Instead what we have is a fragmented system that does not provide enough active centers across the state to accommodate the demand.”

Drennan told the governor members of his organization have paid $220,000 to MorphoTrust since the state hired the company.

“It is unacceptable that we should have to pay for a service that, at a minimum, does not deliver the expected results,” he wrote.

Representatives from the company assured lawmakers they would fix any problems with the state background check system.

“We realize we screwed up. That’s all we can say,” MorphoTrust representative Patrick Kelly said. “We get it. There’s been a lot of problems with our technology and what we’ve done.”

Kelly said the company has flown 25 people to West Virginia over the last three weeks, including an engineering team, to fix technical problems.

Danny Wear, senior director of program management for MorphoTrust, said the company also is meeting with agencies to find out what problems they are having and is now reviewing all 12 fingerprinting sites to see where it can increase staff.

Wear said the company hopes to open three additional fingerprinting sites in the next few months.

He said the company also held a three-and-a-half-hour training session with call center employees to teach them to be attentive to customers’ needs and follow up on every question that comes in.

He said the company is working to set up an email notification system to keep agencies updated on the status of potential employees’ background checks and also hopes to build a secure website that would do the same job in case employers miss the email notifications.

Speaking after the meeting, Kelly said he was not aware of months-long turnaround for background checks but said it could happen. He said the backlogs were not caused by staffing problems but blamed “technical issues.”

He said turnaround times for background checks have dropped each month.

“It’s trending the right way,” he said.

Drennan said he is skeptical. He knows of businesses that are still awaiting background check results from May.

Boileau said ultimately he would like to see all background checks processed within 72 hours. He said he does not care how that is accomplished, whether the state fires MorphoTrust or allows the company to get its act together.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, committee co-chairman, said MorphoTrust’s service has been “unacceptable” so far. He said the subcommittee would continue to watch the company’s progress over the next few months.

‘THIS MAY DO ME IN, I MAY RETIRE’

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on April 07, 2010. 

WHITESVILLE – Ed Runyon, 83, walked to the flag pole in his front yard shortly before noon Tuesday and raised his American flag for the first time this year. He tied it off at half-staff.

Although he didn’t know any of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the retired miner said the incident troubles him deeply.

“It’s a sad thing,” Runyon said.

Runyon worked as a miner for 34 years, suffering two broken fingers and a broken toe during his career. The Korean War veteran said he counts himself lucky he didn’t see any explosions, although he was working underground when several men died over the years.

He said he knew something was wrong at the mine, located a few miles from his house, when he saw a slew of police cars and fire trucks speeding along W.Va. 3 to the scene Monday afternoon.

“We knew something happened,” Runyon said. “Then it got to us pretty quick.”

Many in this Boone County town of about 500 people expressed sadness and shock.

Marlena Adkins, 45, said her husband, Robert, works at the mine and could have easily been among the victims had the company not switched workers’ shifts.

Robert now works the same hours as the victims did – a six day-on, three day-off schedule. His first day off work was Monday.

“That would’ve been the shift he would’ve been on,” Marlena said.

She said her husband was hit hard by the tragedy.

“He was pretty shook up,” she said. “He said, ‘This may do me in. I may retire.’ ”

Tobie Hilderbrand, pastor at the Marsh Fork Worship Center in nearby Eunice, said his stepson, Kory Ferrell, 20, worked on the same shift until Massey transferred him a couple of weeks ago.

“All of a sudden they needed some guys at the other mine,” he said.

Hilderbrand said Kory was initially upset about the move because of the co-workers he had become friends with. Obviously, the family is now thankful.

“The Lord’s really worked on our behalf on that,” Hilderbrand said.

But the family did not escape the tragedy. Hilderbrand said his wife’s uncle, Ricky Workman, was one of the miners killed.

“It’s hit home pretty hard,” he said.

Hilderbrand’s church opened its doors to those needing refreshments and prayer.

The church also changed its front sign to read, “Pray for our miners.”

Someone later affixed a small paper note to the sign: “With deep sympathy and concern for all miners who have lost their lives and all who are still trapped – (from) students and faculty at Marshall University.”

Church member Billy Pettry said the church would remain open “as long as anybody needs us.”

Pettry, a retired miner with black lung, said he once worked with many of the victims and some of their fathers. He was close to Workman, a former classmate and basketball teammate.

“We were like brothers there for a long time,” he said.

Mike Gordon and other members of the New Life Assembly in Pettus are keeping their lights on, too. Gordon said he didn’t leave the church Monday night and he was still there at mid-morning Tuesday.

“We’ll be here all day, I know,” he said. “If we’re not, somebody will be.”

Gordon said about 80 percent of men in the church, including Pastor Gary Williams, are coal miners. He works at the Pine Ridge Mine in Prenter.

“It could’ve been us instead of them,” Gordon said.

He said no family members have passed through the church, but plenty of rescue workers and journalists have.

“They came in off and on all night,” he said.

Gordon said the church doesn’t have a radio or TV on hand to keep updated with the news but is monitoring a police scanner. He said church members get most of their news from people returning from the mines.

“The information we’re getting is only what people are getting and bringing back,” he said.

He said the church members were deeply saddened when they heard of the miners who had lost their lives but are praying for the four miners still trapped inside.

“We’ve got hope,” Gordon said.

Getting Over: The Disgraced W.Va. Gospel Music Promoter Who Found Redemption in Indie Wrestling

This story was published on 100 Days in Appalachia on July 30, 2019.

The sound of twanging electric guitars fills the Madison Civic Center, a small gymnasium in the heart of southern West Virginia’s coalfields. It’s “Ride Stallion Ride,” the entrance music for WWE Hall of Fame inductee Cowboy Bob Orton.

The 300 fans seated on folding chairs and wooden bleachers during this May 2018 show clap and cheer as they wait for the wrestler to appear from behind the black polyester curtain. But the Orton that finally emerges is not the young, scowling, curly-haired villain pictured on the posters for tonight’s show. It’s not the big dumb oaf who, during the inaugural Wrestlemania in 1985, accidentally whacked his pal Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndoff on the head to give Hulk Hogan an easy pin.

The fringe vest and Stetson are the same. So is the prominent nose. But this white-haired, 70-year-old version of Cowboy Bob Orton has a keg where decades before a six-pack used to be. Yet his feet are light as he trots to the ring with Louis Moore, his tag-team partner for the night. He scales the ringside steps and swings his body through the ropes, then jogs slowly around the ring as the ring announcer introduces his opponents.

Now it is Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” blaring from the speakers. The good guy tag team O.V.E.R. appears from behind the curtain. Skinny, pale and dressed in black, Christian Kobain and Shane Kryzak look like members of a heavy metal cover band. They strut down the aisle, jump into the ring and mount adjacent turnbuckles to flex for their devotees — the majority of whom, from the sound of the squeals, seem to be women.

The referee checks everyone’s boots and signals for the bell.

If you’ve ever seen a tag team match, you can guess how this will go. Orton and Moore spend much of the match abusing Kobain while keeping him safely out of Kryzak’s reach. When the battered babyface finally gets to his corner and makes the tag, his comrade explodes into the ring — only to promptly fall into Moore and Orton’s clutches. For a moment, it looks like the bad guys will win. Orton goes for an RKO, a neckbreaker finishing move made famous by his son and fellow WWE superstar Randy Orton. But at the last second, Kobain reaches into the ring and pulls Kryzak from Orton’s grasp.

This destabilizes the big cowboy. He stumbles and falls to the mat. Both members of O.V.E.R. dogpile onto his hefty frame. The referee flops on his belly and pounds the mat with an open palm. One. Two. Three.

The ref signals for the bell and Fall Out Boy again fills the gymnasium, the emo pop mixing with shouts from fans. But instead of cheering the victorious good guys, the crowd sing-songs at Orton.

“YOU STILL GOT IT!” clap clap clapclapclap “YOU STILL GOT IT!” clap clap clapclapclap “YOU STILL GOT IT!”

Moore grabs a microphone and accosts Orton for losing the match. “All these people out here say ‘You still got it.’ From what I saw here tonight, you don’t have it anymore old man.”

The fans begin chanting again. “R-K-O! R-K-O! R-K-O!” In a flash, Orton locks his arm around Moore’s head and drops to the mat. Moore flops on the canvas like his spine has been separated from his brainstem. Now Orton’s music is blasting through the sound system.

The crowd erupts with a fervor usually reserved for tent revivals and championship football games. Grown men leap to their feet in ecstatic applause. Preteen boys in basketball shorts move to the aisle to slap Orton’s hands before he disappears behind the curtain. This is something they might tell their own preteen boys about someday, the night they saw Cowboy Bob Orton administer an RKO at the Madison Civic Center.

Little do fans realize that Gary Damron, who has promoted wrestling shows like this for the last 14 years under the name All Star Wrestling, has worked for months trying to bring this moment to fruition — and he saw almost none of it. Damron spent the majority of Orton’s match hidden away in the civic center’s kitchen, stuffing cash into white envelopes to pay his wrestlers.

Many wrestling promoters are former wrestlers themselves. Damron is not. He is a short, soft-spoken, soft-bodied, spectacled midnight shift movie theater custodian with plantar fasciitis. He loves All You Can Eat Wings Wednesdays at Quaker Steak & Lube, his dachshund Chico, and ’80s pop culture — especially The Golden Girls. He has no interest in administering or receiving a drop kick, frog splash, figure four, or piledriver. He has too much work to do.

Click here to read the rest of the story.

The Greatest’s First Foe

This story originally appeared in the Spring ’19 issue of WV Living magazine. 

In early October 1960, Associated Press teleprinters clattered to life in smoke-filled newsrooms across the United States. The harried editors assigned to monitor the machines couldn’t have known it at the time, but the rapid-fire hammers were pounding out words that would change the history of sports forever.

LOUISVILLE — Cassius Clay, the Olympic light-heavyweight champion, today signed for his first professional bout, a six-rounder against Tunney Hunsaker. Hunsaker, 29-year-old police chief of Fayetteville, W.Va., has a 15–7 record.

Although only 18 years old, Clay was already a global celebrity—not only for his gold-winning performance at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, but also for his outsized persona. After his medal ceremony, he treated members of the press to a celebratory poem that began, “To make America the greatest is my goal, so I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole and for the USA won the medal of gold.”

Now that he was turning pro, Clay agreed to be managed by a coterie of 11 businessmen from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Choosing the first professional opponent for their star required careful consideration. Naturally, they wanted someone their man could defeat. But the opponent also needed to provide enough competition to showcase Clay’s fistic talents.

Although Hunsaker’s name probably did not ring any bells with newspaper readers, he was exactly the kind of boxer Clay’s people were looking for.

This is the story of a tobacco farmer’s son, a lifelong public servant, and a middling boxer whose athletic career might have been forgotten if not for a chance meeting with a man who would become the most famous athlete of all time.

Click here to read the rest of the story.

LOAN DEBT MAY LEAD TO DOCTOR SHORTAGE MORE LUCRATIVE SPECIALTIES, JOB DEALS COULD DRIVE NEW PHYSICIANS OUT OF STATE

Publication: CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL
Published: Monday, January 28, 2013
Page: 1A
Byline: ZACK HAROLD DAILY MAIL CAPITOL REPORTER

Medical school graduates in West Virginia are graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, which could eventually lead to a shortage of physicians in the Mountain State.

West Virginia’s newly minted doctors graduated with an average of $186,000 in medical school debt last year, according to a report released earlier this month by the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

Dr. Norman Ferrari, vice dean for education and academic affairs at WVU’s medical school, said that crushing debt is beginning to affect which specialties new doctors choose.

While students might have wanted to become family doctors, Ferrari said that specialty typically does not make as much money as a cardiologist or oncologist, or another specialty where doctors perform expensive procedures.

“I sometimes hear students say ‘Gee, I would like to be a pediatrician but I need to be a’ . . . whatever kind of ‘ologist’ they think they need to be,” Ferrari said. “The debt is starting to influence their decision making.”

Students at West Virginia University’s medical school graduated with an average $156,425 in debt in 2012, while students at Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine were $162,010 in debt, on average.

Doctors leaving the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine incurred the most debt, however, with an average $240,283 in student loans.

And it appears the numbers are only getting higher.

In 2008, Marshall med school graduates were an average $147,902 in debt while West Virginia University grads had $125,438 in loans and WVSOM graduates had $176,297.

“Theoretically, it could make people stop applying to medical school,” Ferrari said.

What’s more, medical school debt figures only tell half the story. The Higher Education Policy Commission’s statistics do not include loans students might have taken out while completing their undergraduate degrees.

West Virginia’s public college students who completed their undergraduate degrees in 2008 – the year most 2012 medical school graduates got their bachelor’s degrees – had an average $29,065 in debt, according to a separate report from the commission.

That means a student who obtained a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University before heading to the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine could have more than $233,000 when he or she leaves school.

Ferrari said there are several reasons for the increasing debt.

Tuition is always increasing, he said, and more nontraditional students are entering medical school. These students are older, and are sometimes married with children. Ferrari said they often take on more debt than their younger counterparts because the demands of medical school prevent them from having a job, and they need cash to keep their families going.

But simply reducing tuition is not a viable option, Ferrari said. The cost of providing medical education is constantly climbing. Medical schools must pay faculty salaries and facility maintenance costs while trying to provide students with the latest technologies.

“Providing the learning environment has become very expensive,” he said.

So universities are taking other steps to help students keep their debt under control.

Ferrari said WVU tries to provide students with debt management training, and funnel as much money as possible to scholarships. The school also provides students with a notice every year to show how much debt they have incurred.

He said doctors are also finding creative ways to pay off their loans, agreeing to work for specific communities or hospitals in return for some money toward their debt. Others make similar deals with the U.S. military. Ferrari said joining the armed forces might be a good move for students, but does little to help the shortage of doctors in rural communities.

“Once they’ve been stationed in Germany or Hawaii it may be difficult to get them back,” he said.

Linda Holmes, director of development and alumni affairs for Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, said her school is attempting to provide medical students with more scholarship money.

The school handed out $1.93 million in scholarships to medical school students for the 2012-2013 school year. About 65 percent of Marshall medical school students receive scholarships from the university, at about $10,000 per student.

Last year, the school gave about $825,000 in scholarships to about 33 percent of the student body.

Holmes said by providing more money in scholarships, the university reduces the need for student loans.

Marshall’s medical school previously was put on probation by its accrediting body, the Liaison Committee for Medical Education, because graduating students’ debt was higher than the national average. When the medical school hired its new dean Dr. Joe Shapiro last year, he began pushing administrators to generate more money in scholarships.

The money has come from alumni, businesses, friends of the medical school and Marshall Health, the university’s private practice arm.

Denise Getson, spokeswoman for the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, said the school has not raised its tuition in several years as an attempt to help students control their debt. She said the school also tries to direct students to resources like the National Health Service Corps, which helps new doctors repay their loans in return for service in high-need areas.

Getson said WVSOM’s debt figures are likely much higher than other state medical schools because of its large number of out-of-state students. The school has 255 in-state students and 582 students from outside West Virginia.

Tuition for in-state students is about $20,000, while out-of-state students pay nearly $50,000 per year.

STORM REPORT RECOMMENDS ‘EASY FIXES’ POST-DERECHO REVIEW CALLS FOR BACKUP POWER SOURCES, TEXT MESSAGING SYSTEM

Publication: CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL
Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013
Page: 1A
Byline: ZACK HAROLD DAILY MAIL CAPITOL REPORTER

A report commissioned after last year’s derecho recommends state government and other entities institute backup communication methods, do a better job of communicating with the public and purchase lots and lots of generators before the next big storm comes our way.

Strong winds caused by the June 29, 2012, derecho damaged buildings, uprooted trees and took down power lines across the state, leaving up to 1.6 million West Virginia residents without electricity for days.

About two weeks later, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin commissioned an “after action report” to review the state’s response to the storm. That report was released on Wednesday evening, along with a 19-page summary.

Many of the report’s recommendations are focused on backup power and communication methods in an emergency.

High winds during last year’s storms knocked out phone lines and cellular towers in the state. Other cell towers stopped functioning in subsequent days as their backup power sources ran out.

“Many of the findings and recommendations included in this Review are common sense conclusions that can be implemented with ease,” the report says. “Often it is the ‘easy fixes’ that can make the most difference.

“The path forward requires immediate action to ensure that the lessons of the past will contribute to the successes of the future.”

The report recommends state, county and local officials develop alternative communication plans – making use of battery-powered radios and texting, for example – to better transmit and collect information.

The report also advocates the creation of a statewide emergency text messaging system to keep the public better informed, as well as increasing the use of social media services.

“We needed to streamline communication and, in particular, we are now looking into alternative methods to be able to educate the public even when the entire state lacks electricity,” Tomblin said in a press release Wednesday.

The report also focuses on emergency power and generator needs, recommending that radio stations, telecommunication companies and public service districts all have backup plans when the power goes out.

The report found that although public service districts play a vital role in water and sewer services, they currently have no access to alternative power.

Generators became a prime target for thieves following last year’s derecho. Frontier Communications had 20 generators stolen, and police were able to recover only five.

The report recommends utilities coordinate with local law enforcement to patrol the areas near generators. State Police patrolled near generators following another round of widespread outages last fall after Hurricane Sandy and generator thefts “dropped significantly,” reviewers found.

Reviewers recommended power restoration efforts be prioritized to first ensure “preservation of life” and public safety and then to move on to the largest service areas.

Colleges and universities also should be considered high priority in power restoration efforts since they serve large groups of people, the report says.

Utility companies should have designated contacts within the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and should increase their efforts to cut trees around utility lines, it says.

In what probably comes as a surprise to many state residents – especially those who waited in long lines at gas stations after the derecho – the after action review claims “there was not a gasoline shortage in West Virginia.”

“There was, instead, a perceived shortage because West Virginians rushed to the pumps in a panic, exhausting the supply on hand before it could be restocked,” the report said.

A footnote in the report acknowledges a real shortage did exist in some areas of the state, where panicking customers overwhelmed stations.

“In these locations, the panic caused the shortage,” the report said.

Since gas shortages made it difficult for emergency personnel and utility workers to fill their vehicles and generators, the report recommends the Department of Homeland Security begin rationing gasoline during future statewide emergencies.

The report also encourages private gas stations to set aside certain pumps during emergencies to be used only by emergency vehicles.

STUDY SUGGESTS TRACKING EX-CONS GROUP SAYS SUPERVISING RELEASED INMATES WOULD HELP EASE OVERCROWDING

Publication: CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Page: 1A
Byline: ZACK HAROLD DAILY MAIL CAPITOL REPORTER

A national nonprofit group says West Virginia could save millions of dollars over the next five years – and avoid building a new prison – if it kept closer tabs on inmates once they leave the prison system and increased substance abuse treatment programs for ex-cons.

Officials expect the changes to save the state about $116.3 million over the next five years.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced last June that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments, had agreed to conduct a thorough review of the state’s jails and prisons.

The work group has now finished that study, which was funded by the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, and is making recommendations to Tomblin’s office for a major overhaul to the state’s criminal justice system.

There currently are about 7,500 people in West Virginia’s prison system – including about 1,700 prisoners held in regional jails due to overcrowding in prisons – and that number is expected to climb to about 8,900 by 2018 if no changes are made.

But work group members predict the state’s prison population could actually fall by about 2 percent in the next five years if their proposed policy changes are adopted.

The group estimates the changes would save West Virginia $141.8 million in gross operational costs between now and 2018, with about $25.5 million reinvested in substance use treatment programs.

Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy advisor for the Justice Center, said the suggestions cover two main areas, increasing supervision of offenders once they leave the criminal justice system and reducing substance abuse.

According to the group’s report, 22 percent of new commitments are for drug offenses and 66 percent of people entering West Virginia prisons in 2011 needed substance abuse treatment.

But Reynolds said the state’s criminal justice system currently offers no substance abuse programs other than the ones available in prisons. He said there are 13 substance abuse treatment providers in the state, but court and jail officials sometimes have difficulty securing those services for offenders.

In addition to spending more money to increase the availability of treatment services, work group members recommended the state give judges authority to sentence convicted persons to treatment programs.

The report also calls for the state’s criminal justice system to better monitor individuals once they are released from prison.

It says 28.5 percent of people released from prison in 2008 returned to prison within three years. In 2011, 28 percent of individuals released from prison returned to society without any kind of court supervision.

“They serve their time, and once they walk out the door, there’s no supervision,” Reynolds said.

That is a problem because many prisoners have become so accustomed to having their every decision made for them that they cannot function in normal society. He said recidivism, or return, rates could be reduced if the state kept a better eye on ex-prisoners.

The group suggests all newly released prisoners be monitored upon their release. The length of supervision could depend on the seriousness of the prisoner’s crime and his or her likelihood to commit another crime.

Individuals who violated the conditions of their supervision would be subject to “swift, certain and cost-effective sanctions,” the report said. Those actions could include placing the person on probation or home confinement or sending them back to jail for a short time.

If a person was sent back to jail for breaking the terms of their parole, they would not automatically receive a harsh sentence.

Reynolds said the average individual who violates parole spends two years in jail. Those who violate their probation agreements spend an average 1.7 years in jail.

The group suggests parole violators be sentenced to 60 days in jail for an initial offense and 120 days for a second offense, provided the person did not commit a new crime or try to flee supervision.

Reynolds estimates a supervision program would free about 800 beds each year in jails, and that would “chip away” at the backlog of prisoners awaiting beds in prisons.

The group also proposed changes to streamline the state’s parole process.

Bureaucratic hiccups currently leave hundreds of prisoners in limbo as they await parole.

When the Parole Board is considering releasing a prisoner, members review the inmate’s “home plan,” their criminal history and a psychological evaluation. Prisoners are placed under “further consideration” if any of those documents are missing, and their hearing is postponed until all documents are completed and submitted.

According to the report, more than 1,400 people were placed “under further consideration” in 2011, up from 730 in 2007.

Fifty-seven percent of the 1,400 in 2011 were given that status because they did not have a home plan, while 17 percent were awaiting a psychological evaluation.

The workgroup suggested the state streamline the parole process by helping prisoners without home plans find housing and by requiring full psychological assessments only when a preliminary screening indicates it is needed.

Suggestions from the report likely will make their way into proposed bills once the 2013 legislative session begins next month.

The state Supreme Court took more immediate action on Tuesday, issuing a new policy directive partially inspired by the work group’s findings.

Beginning Aug. 1, 2013, every felon convicted in circuit court will undergo a risk and needs assessment test.

“This assessment gives each judge objective information about the likelihood of the felon re-offending and what needs must be met to prevent such recidivism,” state Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury said in a statement.

“It’s another tool at the judge’s disposal to help enhance public safety.”

Canterbury, who was a member of the work group and is the former executive director of the state’s Regional Jail Authority, praised the recommendations.

“Having run the jails for eight years and done this job for eight years, it’s pretty clear that we face a real public safety problem when you have a person sitting in a cell one day and on the street the next day,” he said.

“Public safety is not always enhanced by locking people up. Some people, by being placed on probation and having to do certain things to meet the terms of that probation, will be able to turn his or her life around.”

Coach Kellie: A Tiny West Virginia High School is Making Football History

This story originally appeared on 100 Days in Appalachia on Nov. 9, 2018.

It took a few weeks for Hannan High School principal Karen Oldham to realize her school might have made history. She was so busy with the day-to-day grind of running the small, rural Mason County school that it didn’t cross her mind, until an elderly alumnus brought it to her attention.

Oldham still was not completely certain the school had done anything significant, so before making any kind of formal announcement, she phoned the West Virginia Secondary Schools Athletics Commission and asked officials there to do some digging. They called back a few days later.

It was true: Hannan had hired the first female head football coach in West Virginia history.

The Point Pleasant Register got the scoop. Then, Huntington’s Herald Dispatch and local television stations picked up the story, which led to national coverage in USA Today.

It was all a shock for Oldham. It seems that no one—not Oldham, not the hiring committee she put together, not the superintendent who added the hire to the school board’s agenda, nor the board members who unanimously approved it—realized they were doing anything newsworthy.

“Never did her gender come into our minds,” Oldham says.

All everyone knew was, they had found the best person for the job. And that person was Kellie Thomas.

* * *

The voice of Axel Rose singing “Welcome to the Jungle” cuts through the sour air of the Hannan Wildcats’ locker room as players lace up their cleats and tug navy blue jerseys over their shoulder pads.

In her office, Kellie Thomas is wearing her own uniform: a ballcap with a turquoise H, a Hannan polo shirt with a long sleeve shirt underneath, khaki cargo shorts with a Washington Redskins lanyard hanging from the left pocket and leather Carhartt boots with pink wool socks climbing her bare calves. She pulls on a hooded jacket to protect herself from the night’s drizzling rain and begins going through her pre-game preparations.

She replaces the batteries in the headsets she and her two assistant coaches will use to communicate during the night. She pumps up the three footballs that, as the home team, Hannan is required to supply for the game. Then she calls defensive back and running back Isaac Colecchia into her office.

Colecchia isn’t wearing pads. He suffered a concussion in last week’s game and is sitting out this week. Together, he and Thomas go through a checklist of symptoms—headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, insomnia, anxiousness, depression, and a few dozen more—that Colecchia ranks on a scale of zero to six. He gives most symptoms a zero, but ranks “sensitivity to light” and “sensitivity to noise” at one each. Once the symptoms go away and he’s cleared by his doctor, Colecchia will be eligible to play again.

The moment offers a glimpse at Thomas’s recent past. Although this is her first season as head football coach, she spent close to two decades as Hannan’s athletic trainer. She was there at every practice, scrimmage and game to tape up players’ ankles and wrists. Thomas was such a constant, stable presence that, over time, she became a confidant for players.

“She was their go-to when they had problems with previous coaches,” Oldham says.

That is why, when former Hannan coach Brian Scott resigned following the 2017 season, players approached Thomas and begged her to apply for the position.

With the questionnaire completed, Thomas dismisses Colecchia and leaves the office. She rallies her troops and leads the team out of the corrugated aluminum fieldhouse to a patch of grass just outside, where players arrange themselves into four rows and begin their warm ups.

The team normally warms up on the field, but tonight is homecoming. The field is currently occupied by members of the homecoming court and their parents, awaiting the announcement of this year’s king and queen.

As her players stretch and run drills, Thomas and defensive coordinator Thomas Miller size up tonight’s opponents, the Parkersburg Catholic Crusaders. The team isn’t much bigger than Hannan but the Crusaders are coming into this late October contest with a 7–1 record. Hannan hasn’t won a game all season.

When homecoming festivities are finally completed, the team moves its warm-ups onto the field. Then it’s the national anthem, handshakes between team captains and the coin flip.

Hannan wins the flip and elects to receive. Parkersburg punts and stops the return at Hannan’s 25 yard line. Then, in the first drive of the game, Hannan quarterback Matthew Qualls takes the snap, hops back on his right leg to pass and launches the ball into the air.

Immediately, a Crusader linebacker reaches up and swats the ball back to Earth.

“Oh, crap,” Thomas says.

Read the rest of the story here.

Moonshiner’s Got Nothing to Hide

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on August 27, 2014. 

RIPLEY — Dwayne Freeman makes his moonshine almost the same way as the old-timers.

He uses big sacks of corn and a kettle connected to shiny copper lines.

There are a few minor differences, however.

First, Freeman doesn’t make his whiskey in the moonlight. In fact, he usually works the day shift.

He also did not hide his moonshine distillery very well. It’s pretty easy to find, right off Interstate 77 between the Jackson County Livestock Market and the I-77 Raceway Park.

And even though his grandfather once went to jail for moonshining, Freeman doesn’t worry when the police drive by. He doesn’t have to.

His company Appalachian Distillery is part of a new generation of Appalachian moonshiners, making high-octane whiskey on the right side of the law.

Freeman first got the idea to open a moonshine distillery about five years ago, after the West Virginia Legislature legalized the small-scale manufacture of whiskey in the state.

At the time Freeman was working as a purchasing agent at a coal mine.

He started crunching the numbers and realized, much to his surprise, that he could make money in the whiskey business.

“I said, There’s got to be something wrong.’

He took the idea to James Hager, a contractor friend who also worked for the mines.

Hager looked at Freeman’s business plan and agreed it might work. He also agreed to come aboard as Freeman’s business partner.

“I said I’ll make it, you sell it,’” Freeman said. He took the plunge.

Freeman decided to move forward with his plans after being laid off from the mines.

He signed a lease on a former grocery store in Ravenswood, but quickly realized the building would require lots of work before the distillery could begin operating.

Then a nearby church convinced city leaders to yank the distillery’s permit over a zoning error.

Freeman didn’t mind. Losing his license freed him from the lease, allowing him to move his distillery into a brand-new building on Cedar Lakes Drive near Ripley.

The building was custom designed for the distillery with tall ceilings and drains in the concrete floor. It also proved to be good for business.

The distillery hasn’t done much advertising, but Freeman said the word-of-mouth buzz has been enough to drive flocks of visitors to the distillery.

Freeman said when he started out, he worried he would not be able to produce legal moonshine that tasted as good as the illegal whiskey he had tasted.

Then he ran the still for the first time.

“It was better, Freeman said. “Everybody says it’s some of the best they’ve tasted.”

Cooking moonshine in larger batches, it turns out, brings out more flavor in the finished product.

The process starts with corn. And lots of it.

Each run of the moonshine still requires between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds of cracked corn, which Appalachian Distillery buys from a man in Sissonville, who grinds the grain himself.

The corn goes into a large vat of water, where it cooks for four hours until it takes on an oatmeal-like consistency.

This “mash” also contains barley, which converts the starch in the corn into sugar.

The corn mash is now pumped into one of the distillery’s five fermenting tanks.

Workers pitch yeast on top of the corn. Over the next five to seven days, the bacteria in the yeast will turn the sugars in the mash into alcohol.

That alcohol will then be extracted from the mash using the moonshine still.

Appalachian Distillery’s still looks just like the illegal backwoods pot stills you see in the movies, except much larger.

The fermented mash is pumped into a big stainless steel pot, where it is heated. The heat releases alcohol vapor. The vapor then floats up through the copper “onion head and into a copper line.

The copper is more than just tradition. Fermenting yeast creates sulfur, which would ruin the taste of the final product.

Copper binds with the sulfur, causing it to collect on the inside of the lines like big pepper flakes. Meanwhile, the vapor continues through the still and re-condenses into liquid alcohol.

Freeman’s moonshine still does an especially good job of removing sulfur from the alcohol, thanks to its special “reflux column” filled with copper plates.

The alcohol makes several passes through the chamber, condensing and evaporating over and over. The copper plates remove more sulfur with each pass.

This is where Appalachian Distillery departs from moonshining tradition. The old timers didn’t have reflux columns. They just made seven or eight batches of whiskey and ran it all back through the still.

The resulting whiskey wasn’t nearly as clean as Appalachian Distillery’s moonshine, however.

“The taste is extraordinarily cleaner,” master distiller Darrell Lee said.

Each run of the still produces about 80 gallons of 175- to 180-proof alcohol.

The liquid is transferred to a “spirit safe” where some of the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, causing the proof to drop.

Workers then pour the moonshine into big blue food-safe barrels, where they mix it with water and further reduce the proof.

Appalachian Distillery’s flagship product is 90-proof “original moonshine.”

They also offer four flavored versions, a 70-proof cinnamon drink called “Spitfire” and three 40-proof flavors: apple pie, “orange stuff” and pawpaw.

These flavors are added in a large mixer, where workers mix the alcohol with pre-mixed flavors.

Lee said pawpaw moonshine, flavored like West Virginia’s indigenous “hillbilly banana,” has been the most popular item so far.

“Just because it’s something unique,” he said.

Each flavor is available in two sizes, a 750-milliliter bottle and a 375-milliliter bottle, and can be purchased at Rite Aid and CVS stores around the state.

Freeman and Hager are working to get Appalachian Distillery moonshine into every liquor store in the state and eventually hope to branch out to stores in Kentucky and Ohio, too.

Freeman also is planning additional flavors – including blackberry, strawberry, strawberry lemonade and limited-run holiday flavors like peppermint – and he eventually hopes to produce barrel-aged moonshine.

For more information about Appalachian Distillery, visit www.appalachian-moonshine.com or search “Appalachian Distillery” on Facebook.

Jackie Mitchell Couldn’t Win

This article originally appeared on Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable blog on March 29, 2018. Click here to read the full story.

On the first pitch of that April 1931 game, Chattanooga Lookouts pitcher Clyde Barfoot gave up a double to New York Yankees outfielder Earle Combs. Then Lyn Larry singled to centerfield, bringing Combs home. Now Babe Ruth, who had led the American League the year before in both home runs and slugging, was coming to bat with no outs and a man on base.

Ruth approached the plate with “a wry smile playing at the corners of his mouth,” an Associated Press reporter wrote. The crowd of four thousand at Engel Stadium began cheering wildly. Like the smiling Ruth, they knew what was coming.

Lookouts manager Bert Niehoff walked to the mound, took the ball from Barfoot, and brought in his new pitcher—a seventeen-year-old left-hander named Beatrice Mitchell. Everybody called her Jackie.

Mitchell had first made national news two months earlier, in a short article that ran in sports pages around the country: “Enrolled in a new baseball school conducted at Atlanta, Georgia, by Norman (Kid) Elberfeld, former major and minor league figure, is Miss Jackie Mitchell, age seventeen, a left-handed pitcher.”

At the time, the sports media’s interest did not extend beyond that one sentence. For decades, women had been playing baseball in college intramural teams and novelty barnstorming clubs such as the Bloomer Girls, named for the billowy trousers they wore during games. Some women had even made it into men’s semipro leagues. It was hardly newsworthy that a girl would participate in America’s pastime.

But then, beginning the last week of March 1931, Mitchell’s name reappeared in the papers. Lookouts owner Joe Engel announced he was adding Mitchell to his team’s pitching rotation. Her first appearance would be in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees.

Mitchell was scheduled to make her first public appearance at Engel Stadium on March 31, where she was supposed to pitch for the press. But much to waiting fans’ disappointment, Engel kept her out of the public eye until the game and showed her off to reporters at a backyard pitching session instead.

It was at this point Mitchell’s origin story began to trickle into the papers. Her parents encouraged her to play sports from an early age—doctor’s orders after she was born premature. When she was seven years old, her family lived in a Memphis duplex beside future Hall of Fame pitcher Charles “Dazzy” Vance, who was then playing for the Memphis Chicks. When Vance saw his young neighbor playing ball with the boys and noticed she was left-handed—a coveted trait for a baseball pitcher—he taught her to throw.

As she grew older, Mitchell showed promise in tennis, swimming, and basketball. She thought about becoming an aviator like Amelia Earhart. But baseball remained her first love. When the family moved to Chattanooga, Mitchell joined the Englettes, a girls-only team owned by Engel and managed by her father.

Watching her pitch to a “boy friend” who agreed to serve as catcher, sports scribes noted Mitchell’s “odd side-armed delivery” but complimented her speed, control, and curve. They asked if she was nervous. “There is no use to get nervous over a ball game when I have been playing ball nearly all my life,” she said. “I will just go out there and do my best, and I believe I can fool the Babe.”

During his thirty-five years with the Lookouts, Engel became known for his vaudevillian antics. He once traded a slumping shortstop for a turkey, which he cooked and served to sportswriters. He staged a phone call to Adolf Hitler and held an “elephant hunt” in the outfield with papier-mâché pachyderms. Another time, he lured a newly recruited Native American player inside a teepee he’d erected on the pitcher’s mound. Engel emerged a short time later, bellowing “Custer’s revenge!” and holding a butcher knife in one hand and a “scalp”—actually a dark-colored wig—in the other.

But all that would come later. Engel’s first big stunt would be pitting a teenage girl against the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row batting lineup.

Newspapers across the U.S. picked up the story but remained skeptical. Writers pointed out the game was scheduled for April 1, a sure sign the whole thing was a prank. When a photographer telegraphed The Sporting News and offered to shoot Mitchell’s contract signing, the receiving editor thought it was a joke: “Quit your kidding. What is Chattanooga trying to do, burlesque the game?” The photographer wired back to assure the newspaper he was not kidding, but the editor was not convinced. “Yeah! Presume Al Capone or Charlie Chaplin will be catcher. In sending any more wires please pay for them so I can enjoy the laugh.”

The game would not take place on April Fools’ Day, however. Cold weather forced Engel to postpone until the next day. The delay did nothing to dampen anticipation. By the time the game began on Thursday afternoon, bells were ringing on teletype machines across the country as reporters filed accounts of the game.

Click here to read the rest.