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W.Va. Jails Still Overcrowded As DCR Responds To Outbreaks

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West Virginia corrections officials are responding to more than 250 active cases of the coronavirus in state prisons and regional jails, the latter of which were mostly over capacity on Tuesday.

Advocates, who say that overcrowding makes social distancing nearly impossible, are requesting that the Justice administration take more action to reduce the number of people being held pretrial, and to protect those incarcerated long-term.

“Within regional jails, it's impossible for social distancing,” said Greg Whittington from West Virginia Family of Incarcerated People and the ACLU. “It’s just a powder keg for COVID-19.”

By Tuesday afternoon, all but one of the state’s jails was overcrowded, and state leaders were monitoring COVID-19 clusters of 10 or more people in five facilities.

That includes outbreaks in two state prisons, which, unlike regional jails, were under capacity on Tuesday.

The state's largest active outbreak Tuesday was at Northern Regional Jail, where nearly 170 incarcerated people had tested positive for the coronavirus and not yet recovered. This facility, located in Marshall County, was roughly 150 people over capacity Tuesday afternoon.

More than 1,200 prisoners and 450 employees have had the virus since DCR’s first confirmed employee case in April.

Meanwhile, staff for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation have been implementing the same COVID-19 policy since March.

“These people have done an unbelievable job, an unbelievable job, looking after and serving our inmates and doing great work,” Justice said of DCR on Friday.

Overcrowding isn’t new to the state of West Virginia — shortly before the state began responding to the pandemic, Justice signed House Bill 2419 into law, to release more people being held pretrial for nonviolent charges.

And less than two months after state officials first began responding to the pandemic in March, West Virginia jail populations dropped by almost 30 percent. This likely was a result of guidance from the state Supreme Court, to release more nonviolent offenders.

But somehow, the state is back where it started, with roughly 1,400 people more than the state’s systemwide regional jail capacity. In August, several magistrates told West Virginia Public Broadcasting they were implementing new laws and guidance from the Supreme Court to the best of their ability.

Whittington says criminal justice officials aren’t enforcing the law consistently.

“These are simple things, simple legislation that we have had over the last year or so, that if they actually did it, right, would make a difference,” Whittington said.

In addition to asking for more consistent enforcement or these laws to reduce overcrowding, advocates are requesting increased testing, and more transitional housing options for people who have nowhere to go after they’re released.

All of this, said Whittington, could be covered by a portion of the state's leftover CARES Act funding. The state initially received roughly $1.25 billion to spend on relief programs for those experiencing fallout from the pandemic. On Dec. 6, MetroNews reported that the state still had $800 million left, which it must spend before the year is up.

And with the first doses of a COVID vaccine already in West Virginia, Whittington says he hopes staff and incarcerated people are among those prioritized.

“Regional jails and prisons are one of the larger employees in the state. It's pretty naïve of us not to think they’re carrying that back to their families,” Whittington said. “And that's why we’ve had to push to have people in regional jails and prisons vaccinated, along with correctional staff.”

The governor’s office included DCR staff in Phase 1-B of its plan for allocating the COVID-19 vaccine on Friday.

Corrections staff will be vaccinated as doses are available with other essential, high-risk employees working in community infrastructure and emergency response.

State health officials are prioritizing workers who are at a higher risk for COVID-19 before the general public, which Justice said he hopes to begin vaccinating in March 2021.

The governor’s office has not provided details on vaccinating people incarcerated in state correctional facilities.

State health officials continue testing about 10 percent of DCR staff regularly, for surveillance.

They’re also continuing to monitor jail and prison outbreaks. In addition to the nearly 170 COVID-19 cases at Northern Regional Jail, roughly 30 people have tested positive for the virus between jails in Braxton and Berkeley counties, both of which were over capacity Tuesday.

Almost 60 people have tested positive and not recovered between prisons in Marshall, Taylor and Pleasants counties. Another 46 DCR employees also had tested positive and not recovered by Tuesday.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.


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