W.Va. Corrections Releases Statewide Policy As Inmate Population Continues To Decline

Apr 17, 2020

West Virginia corrections officials this week released a redacted version of its policy for handling and preventing COVID-19 in the state’s jails, prisons and other correctional facilities.

Staff for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation notified West Virginia Public Broadcasting Wednesday that the information was available online in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for the DCR’s policy. However, information on how individual facilities are localizing and implementing the DCR policy remains confidential. 

The statewide plan, which the DCR says has been in place since March 20, provides recommendations and rules for hygiene, sanitation, spacing and isolation for those with symptoms — as well as those most at risk of dying from infection, due to age or preexisting health conditions.

The DCR plan is based on a model that Kansas-based health consultant VitalCore Health Strategies developed, using recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The policy was approved by the American Correctional Association.

Redacted information includes guidance for transporting incarcerated individuals who need medical care, and the details of how inmates should be screened for COVID-19 symptoms. DCR staff have referred to a section of state code allowing them to redact this information because it could potentially aid an inmate in efforts to escape or cause harm. 

West Virginia has not reported any cases of the virus in its facilities. Nationally, incarcerated populations have seen the deaths of corrections staff, federal inmates and state inmates at facilities in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and New York, to name a few. 

How Jails, Prisons Enforce Policy Remains Confidential

To ensure implementation of the policy, the West Virginia DCR asks each of its facilities to fill out a worksheet, included within the policy documentation, elaborating on how they plan to localize the statewide policy, and what resources they have for enforcing some of the hygiene and spacing recommendations. 

How West Virginia’s jails and prisons answer these worksheets remains closed to the public. 

Spokesman Lawrence Messina for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which oversees the DCR, said a federal judge has “already agreed that these materials reflect policy directives and operational procedures of personnel relating to the safe and secure management of inmates or residents that if released, could be used by an inmate or resident to escape a facility, or to cause injury to another inmate, resident or to facility personnel.” 

U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers initially reviewed the state’s COVID-19 response policy for correctional facilities weeks ago, under seal before the DCR made its division-wide policy public this week. This was after a group of West Virginia inmates, represented by the legal firm Mountain State Justice, requested that Chambers order the DCR to create a plan and reduce its incarcerated population. 

Through its now public, division-wide policy for COVID-19, the DCR asks that jails and prisons promote and facilitate good hygiene habits, like handwashing. 

The accompanying worksheet asks “How will good health habits be promoted with your staff?” and “Are soap dispensers or hand soap available in all employee and incarcerated person restrooms? … What is the plan to ensure incarcerated individuals have an adequate supply of bar soap?”

In regard to spacing needs, the worksheet asks facilities to describe their capacity for isolating inmates displaying potential COVID-19 symptoms.

DCR’s policy recommends isolating these individuals to one-person cells. When that’s not possible, it recommends facilities cohort these groups accordingly in a setting where beds are at least six feet apart, and those who potentially are infectious should wear a face mask to limit the likelihood of disease transmission.

For inmates who have been exposed to the coronavirus the worksheet asks, “What rooms could be used for group quarantine?” 

It also asks about the preparedness of a facility to provide enough face masks to those quarantined in a group setting to last 14 days as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The DCR policy goes on to recommend facilities identify inmates with “comorbid conditions” like diabetes, heart or lung disease, and, “if possible, quarantine them in single cells.”  

There is a section specifying how facilities should care for the sick, saying “treatment consists of assuring hydration and comfort measures.” It allows certain medication like Ibuprofen or Tylenol for fevers, and it calls on facilities to use “a low threshold” when deciding whether an inmate with shortness of breath should be transported to a hospital.

Staff who know they have come into contact with someone with the coronavirus are advised to stay home in quarantine for 14 days. The policy also advises staff who display potential symptoms to stay home. 

The policy doesn’t specifically address coronavirus testing, which already is in short supply nationwide, but the worksheet does ask what individual facilities’ county health departments are advising and offering in that regard. 

The policy calls for staff dealing with quarantined inmates to have the appropriate protective equipment, including gowns, gloves, eye protection and face masks. 

Reducing The Incarcerated Population

Groups such as the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have advocated for the DCR to reduce its incarcerated population, stating more room makes it easier to enforce social distancing guidelines from the federal government.

The DCR seems to understand the same, also recommending in its policy that facilities stagger their recreation and mealtimes, that they discontinue pill lines and either discontinue or modify group activities.

West Virginia’s incarcerated population continues to decline as the state releases more inmates that criminal justice officials have determined impose little to no risk on public safety. 

According to numbers from the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety provided on Thursday, April 16, there were 4,085 people incarcerated throughout West Virginia’s regional jails, which have a total capacity for 4,265 beds. On Monday, April 6, DMAPS reported there were more than 4,300 people in West Virginia’s 10 regional jails.

Four individual jails were still at overcapacity on Thursday. According to numbers from DMAPS, Southern Regional Jail had 58 more people than its capacity, Tygart Valley Regional Jail had 61 more people, Northern Regional Correctional Facility and Jail had 27 more people and North Central Regional Jail had 110 more. 

In prisons, there were 5,139 people across 13 locations, which have a total 5,437 beds. No individual prison was over capacity on Thursday. 

Other than reducing the incarcerated population, the DCR policy calls for facilities to reduce contact by ending free-flowing, self-service food stations like salad bars. 

For sanitation, the policy recommends facilities assign more inmates to cleaning duties. 

Correctional facilities ended family visits in March. The policy calls on the corrections staff to “support communications with family members” of incarcerated individuals, which is available through phone or video communications. 

The policy recommends administering flu shots to inmates and staff when they’re in stock, and frequently testing for the flu, because the two diseases have similar symptoms. 

Staff are screened for COVID-19 symptoms as they come into work. That includes their temperature, according to the policy.

Newly arriving inmates are screened as they arrive at a facility, or as they display potential COVID-19 symptoms, and certain inmates are screened depending on the types of jobs they work in a facility, like those in food service or a medical department. 

Additional specifics on inmate screening were redacted. 

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.