A coalition of civil rights, faith, and health advocacy organizations applauds statements by Gov. Jim Justice that the state is moving toward universal COVID-19 testing in prisons and jails, but said much more needs to be done to protect public health.
The coalition sent a letter earlier this week to Governor Justice renewing the call for universal COVID-19 testing in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers. The coalition also reiterated to the Governor measures that will reduce the likelihood of more widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities and their surrounding communities. These include that he:
• Recommend that judges and magistrates prioritize personal recognizance bonds for pretrial misdemeanants per the bail reform legislation which takes effect June 5.
• Expedite the effective date of Senate Bill 611 to empower the commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to approve home plans for people in state prisons who are nearing parole eligibility and pose no threat to public safety.
• Empower the commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to identify incarcerated people in regional jails who have three months or less left in their sentence to be released immediately in the absence of evidence that they would pose an immediate threat to public safety.
• Reduce overcrowding immediately by having relevant agencies such as the National Guard, Division of Military and Public Safety, and the Jobs and Hope program work together to identify and appropriately staff transitional housing so that people can be safely released
The letter also underscores that Black people are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated than white people. Any effort by the state to address racial disparities in the impacts of COVID-19 will fall short unless significant strides are taken to reduce incarceration immediately.
“As the Governor has been proactive in many ways amidst this pandemic, we hope he will take necessary steps to reduce jail churn and prison overcrowding,” said Lida Shepherd with the American Friends Service Committee. “This is a matter of public health and safety.”
“It’s impossible to socially distance adequately in our overcrowded jails and prisons,” said Greg Whittington, ACLU-WV Criminal Legal Reform Campaign Director. “It’s vital that we reduce the incarcerated population to save lives of incarcerated people, those who work in the system, and the community at-large.
“It has been disheartening to see West Virginia’s jail population grow rather than shrink in recent weeks,” Whittington said. “It has been especially frustrating to see the surge in the number of people detained on misdemeanor charges who have not been found guilty of any crime, but who now potentially could be facing a death sentence.”
Coalition partners include: AFSC, NAACP – Jefferson County Chapter, Catholic Conference of WV, WV Center on Budget and Policy, ACLU-WV, Appalachian Prison Book Project.