CHARLESTON — A federal judge ruled Monday that West Virginia’s correctional system has a reasonable, well-founded and appropriate plan to deal with the unprecedented COVID-19 threat.
U.S. District Court Robert C. Chambers rejected allegations from Mountain State Justice that the W.Va. Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation was “deliberately indifferent” to the risks posed by the pandemic. He denied Mountain State Justice’s request that DCR be ordered to release inmates from its prisons and jails.
Instead, Chambers found that DCR has recognized the threat from COVID-19 and responded with all available resources – including through appropriate policies and measured mechanisms for reducing facility populations. With a detailed written ruling expected in the coming days, the judge said DCR was taking reasonable steps to mitigate the risks from COVID-19 and provide for the health and safety of staff and inmates at its facilities to the extent possible.
DCR responded to plaintiffs’ allegations that it was “deliberately indifferent” to the COVID-19 pandemic’s risks by presenting evidence of its comprehensive COVID-19 response plan. This response embraces the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. DCR also demonstrated it is taking steps to protect inmate health by providing additional hygiene and cleaning products, increasing monitoring of inmate health, enhancing health screenings for new inmates and suspending inmate medical copays for sick call visits, among other measures.
To address potential overcrowding issues in its facilities, DCR has also extended furloughs for already-eligible work-release inmates and released parolees who were temporarily jailed for technical violations if they have approved home plans. It continues to examine other furlough options that won’t compromise public safety. The Supreme Court, in consultation with WVDCR, has also asked that county prosecutors identify pretrial defendants suitable for personal recognizance or reduced bonds.
Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy, whose Cabinet department includes DCR, praised Commissioner Betsy Jividen and her team and thanked Gov. Jim Justice for his continuing leadership in the campaign against COVID-19.
“I am pleased with the judge’s decision, because he showed that corrections leadership and the Parole Board act professionally and use common sense concerning who we release from our facilities,” Sandy said. “The Justice Administration and Commissioner Jividen will continue to fight anything that places employees, the inmate and the public at risk.”
Public safety leaders similarly welcomed the hearing’s outcome.
"Sheriffs from across the state have worked with our corrections and jail system as well as other emergency professionals to protect citizens as best they can, and we give credit to the DCR staff for operating under very tough conditions,” said Delegate Rodney Miller, D-Boone, a former county sheriff and the executive director of the W.Va. Sheriffs’ Association.
DCR will continue to work with others in the criminal justice system – prosecutors and defense lawyers, the judiciary, law enforcement, and advocates for crime victims and others – to shape the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence said that while it did not know the specifics of the pending lawsuit against DCR, it does support adequate healthcare for all inmates and is “particularly familiar with struggles to provide safe measures to people living in small spaces as we work to maintain safe space for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking seeking shelter in the midst of this pandemic.”
“Victims of domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault have the right to be safe from their abusers,” said WVCADV Team Coordinator Joyce Yedlosky. She added, “If immediate healthcare options are not available during this pandemic, and release is being considered, such release should include: case-by-case analysis of inmate/victim safety; victim notice and input; and inmate monitoring to maintain safe distancing from victims.”