10:00am: Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval

Justice announces the first covid-related death of a W.Va. inmate

Gov. Jim Justice announced today that an inmate from the South Central Regional Jail died early today while at an outside hospital. The preliminary assessment from health officials attributes the cause to complications from covid-19.

That would make the death the first recorded instance of a West Virginia inmate’s death related to the coronavirus.

Earlier, a Mount Olive Correctional Center inmate who died while receiving hospice care for stage 4 metastatic cancer was tested for covid-19 shortly before his death and was found to be positive. But the treating medical provider determined that covid-19 was not a contributing factor.

The inmate who died this week was identified as a 40-year Wood County man being held on federal charges. He had underlying medical conditions and tested positive for covid-19 within the past week while at the hospital, state officials said.

The inmate had tested negative in the second round of enhanced testing at South Central, conducted Aug. 12, as had nearly 450 other inmates and more than 80 employees.

That facility had seven active and 57 recovered inmate cases as of Thursday, with 13 inmate tests pending. Among employees, the jail had one active case with six others listed as recovered and two tests pending.

The Division of Corrections has been discussing today’s inmate death with state and local health officials as well as federal prosecutors and the U.S. Marshals Service.

The Division of Corrections continues to post testing updates daily on the Correctional Facilities page of West Virginia’s main website for its COVID-19 response, coronavirus.wv.gov.

Overall, the corrections system lists 38 active cases and 295 pending tests, with 10,951 negative cases. The corrections system says 187 inmates are considered recovered.

There are 1,221 in quarantine, mostly in the state’s regional jails.

Earlier this month, several West Virginia policy organizations issued a repeated call to try to keep inmate populations down during the pandemic.

The groups urged magistrates, circuit court judges, and prosecutors to use the full force of a new bail law to slow the spread of the virus.

House Bill 2419, passed by the state legislature during the 2020 regular session, intends to reduce the number of people incarcerated pretrial for low-level misdemeanor and felony charges by requiring a magistrate to hold a hearing within 72 hours if a defendant cannot afford the bail amount or post bond.

The bill provides a presumption of release for a person charged with a non-violent misdemeanor or felony offense unless good cause is shown that the person should not be released, or when the person is charged with a more serious offense as outlined in the
legislation, for example crimes involving a child or a deadly weapon.

But since the law went into effect in June, the groups say, the number of people who are incarcerated in regional jails because they cannot  afford bail has not seen any significant reduction.

So nine out of 10 of the state’s regional jail facilities are as overcrowded as they were in early March, prior to the state’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

The Division of Corrections has pointed out that around 57 percent of the state’s jail population are pre-trial defendants who have not yet been convicted of any crime.

Lida Shepherd

“As West Virginians, we look out for one another,” says Lida Shepherd with American Friends Service Committee, “and a COVID-19 outbreak anywhere undermines our state’s ability to reduce community spread.

“A person should not be put at greater risk of  exposure to the virus because they are too poor to afford bail. From both a public health and moral perspective, we implore our state’s judges and prosecutors to use every alternative to incarceration.”

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