Emily Allen Published

W.Va. Corrections Testing All Of Charleston Jail Population For Coronavirus


West Virginia corrections officials will test all people incarcerated at the South Central Regional Jail for the coronavirus this week, after reporting eight prisoners with COVID-19 there on Monday. 

The Charleston jail was on lockdown as of Sunday night, according to a press release from the DCR. Diagnosed prisoners were quarantined to two housing units with the 29 others they had contact with. 

The DCR reported 17 employees had COVID-19 Monday afternoon.

At least 10 of those employees work for the Southern Regional Jail in Raleigh County, according to Gov. Jim Justice, where another prisoner also tested positive has recently recovered from the coronavirus, according to the DCR.

The DCR said Sunday it was monitoring the situation in Raleigh County for more cases.

“I don’t know how we’re going to do it because testing supplies and testing availability in labs and so on like that,” Justice said during an online press briefing Monday. “But we need to develop plans right now to go back through and retest every single person that’s in all the nursing homes again. And, we need a plan to be able to go through and retest every person in our correctional facilities again.”

Retesting all of the state’s incarcerated population and corrections staff for the coronavirus would be a “daunting” task, Justice said, due to the state’s other system-wide testing needs in universities and potentially long-term care facilities.

There are also several hundred more people in the state’s regional jails than there were in June, when the DCR first tested everyone in its custody and employment after an outbreak at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in late May. Tests were administered then by in-house medical providers, according to DCR spokesperson Lawrence Messina.

Eight out of West Virginia’s 10 jails are over capacity, according to coronavirus data from the DCR Monday.

The Charleston jail had about 70 more prisoners than its bed count on Monday, and the Raleigh County jail had roughly 270 more people than its bed count. 

Messina called the over-crowding “challenging” in an email to West Virginia Public Broadcasting Monday, but said each facility is still “able to medically isolate and quarantine inmates in accordance with the DCR’s response policy for COVID-19.”

More than half of the jail populations in each facility were pretrial defendants, according to a press release from the DCR Sunday night.

At Southern Regional Jail, Messina reported Monday 75 people were there on state misdemeanor charges, about 320 on state felony charges and just under 30 as federal pretrial defendants.

At South Central Regional Jail, Messina reported 45 people were there on state misdemeanor charges, almost 200 on state felony charges and about 65 as federal pretrial defendants.

Staff for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals asked county prosecutors in March to identify and release pretrial defendants who don’t constitute a public safety risk, making them eligible for pretrial release.

That guidance is still in place, according to spokesperson Jennifer Bundy, who said the court still regularly sends county judges and magistrates a list of eligible pretrial defendants.

Supreme court staff reminded county judges on June 30 to reconsider who it sends to jails, according to Bundy. 

Earlier in the pandemic, jail counts dropped from 5,200 people on March 2 to 4,100 April 20. But by late May jail populations began creeping upward, despite legislation that went into effect June 5 to reduce the number of pretrial defendants behind bars.

All 10 jails combined have more than 1,100 people over capacity, according to DCR data Monday afternoon. The DCR reports none of its prisons are over capacity.

In June, the DCR reported one prisoner who had died there on July 17 had tested positive for the coronavirus on July 21. Corrections officials said COVID-19 was not a contributing factor to the death of the Mount Olive prisoner, who was in hospice care for stage 4 metastatic cancer.  

This story was corrected on Tuesday, August 11, 2020, to reflect that none of the state’s prisons are over capacity according to the DCR. This story previously stated the Mount Olive Correctional Center in Fayette County was over capacity.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.