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As COVID Blasts Packed WV Prisons, Stronger Action Needed

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It's estimated that people in jail or prison are being infected by COVID-19 at rates more than five times higher than the nation's overall infection rate. (Adobe Stock)
It's estimated that people in jail or prison are being infected by COVID-19 at rates more than five times higher than the nation's overall infection rate. (Adobe Stock)
December 2, 2020

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - As the number of COVID-19 cases in West Virginia jails skyrockets, advocates for incarcerated people are urging Gov. Jim Justice to follow recommendations in a new report to curb the spread.

As of December 1, more than 1,150 people serving time and correctional officers have contracted the virus, according to Lida Shepherd - program director with the American Friends Service Committee.

With regional jails at 35% over capacity, she said state officials should reduce pretrial detention and release anyone close to their parole date who isn't a threat to public safety. Those suggestions are in a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

"An outbreak anywhere reduces our state's overall ability to get this virus under control," said Shepherd. "And so, that's why it's just critical that the governor really take action to prevent them - not just respond to when they happen, but to really prevent them through some of these recommendations."

The state Legislature had passed House Bill 2419 before the pandemic, which aims to reduce the number of people being held pretrial for low-level misdemeanor charges.

But Shepherd said she thinks, even with jails and surrounding communities becoming pandemic hotspots, the new law isn't really being applied.

Not using the new law creates what's known as "churn" in regional jails - where a lot of people are entering for short periods and then exiting, Shepherd said.

"In the midst of a pandemic, that obviously has some pretty dire consequences, as we are now seeing play out in some of our regional jails," said Shepherd. "With the virus being introduced not only necessarily by inmates, people who are coming into the system, but of course, by staff as well."

The report also recommends that people not be reincarcerated for minor, technical parole violations. Shepherd said not only would this help stop the spread of COVID, it could help restore lives and reunite families.

Disclosure: American Friends Service Committee of West Virginia contributes to our fund for reporting on Budget Policy & Priorities, Health Issues, Livable Wages/Working Families, Welfare Reform. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Diane Bernard, Public News Service - WV