Of all the warped and self-serving analyses uttered by politicians after prison riots, none sinks quite to the level of remarks last week by West Virginia Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr. after the state prison rioting in which 16 hostages were seized and three inmates murdered. The governor, who spent the worst part of the riots at his Florida vacation home -- saying that his presence in West Virginia would have "intensified matters, making them worse" -- claimed that the three murders resulted from policies instituted when his longtime rival, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, was governor.
That's when a number of prison privileges were abolished, Mr. Moore said, including liberal dress codes and an inmates' council. He also blamed the murders on what he called a "snitch system" he said was put in place during Mr. Rockefeller's term as governor. The policy of rewarding informers was instituted following a 1979 escape of 15 prisoners in which an inmate and a state trooper died.
Whatever one may think of these policies in terms of correctional administration, one question does leap to mind, though not, apparently, to the minds of Gov. Moore or anyone still in the state who could speak for him at the time: Why didn't Mr. Moore ever change any of these policies he now finds so deadly?
"Gov. Moore's charges are cowardly and contemptible," Sen. Rockefeller's press secretary, Tim Gay, replied. "For three days during this crisis, Gov. Moore was nowhere to be found. . . . The people in West Virginia know, Gov. Moore knows and Sen. Rockefeller knows that prison conditions at Moundsville are deplorable. But the overriding issue where prisons are involved is to ensure control and protect public safety."
For the record, Mr. Gay notes that during Gov. Moore's first administration, the state averaged more than 300 escapes yearly, and that during the Rockefeller administration that figure was reduced to 82.
There is no question that this 120-year-old fortress of a penitentiary is a disgrace. In 1983 a court declared conditions there unconstitutional and ordered scores of improvements. So far Gov. Moore has said he will not comply with court orders for major improvements. "The constitutional officers of the state will reform the institution," not the courts, he has said. Now that's shouldering responsibility, isn't it?