June Leffler Published

West Virginia Excels In Vaccine Rollout, But Still Overlooks Prison and Jail Inmates

Prison Bars

State health and corrections agencies have yet to vaccinate inmates in West Virginia’s jails and prisons, and there is no definitive plan to do so.

There is no start date set to give COVID-19 vaccines to state inmates, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Lawrence Messina stated today.

“DCR continues to examine the best way to prioritize vaccinations, in keeping with the state’s overall approach,” wrote Messina.

Two groups that advocate for the rights of incarcerated people have taken notice, and are ready to pursue legal action. The West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Mountain State Justice say that if state officials do not release a plan by the end of the month that says how and when incarcerated people will be vaccinated, both groups are prepared to file suit.

The West Virginia ACLU and Mountain State Justice sent a letter to the governor today demanding a plan be made publicly available by the end of the month. It demands that the state supply an “adequate” amount of doses, and that administration of those vaccines begin no later than April 5.

“We don’t have one person that we know of that has gotten the vaccine,” said Greg Whittington of the West Virginia ACLU. “There’s no consideration for the deaths and lives of convicted people in this state, so we are forced to litigate if we’re not going to be able to get a governor who cares enough about his people to release us or to vaccinate us.”

Gov. Jim Justice’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Justice announced this week that every West Virginian can get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We think it’s a constitutional violation to offer vaccines to West Virginians age 16 and up with the caveat ‘unless you are incarcerated,’ because as far as we can tell there’s just no plan to make them available,” said Rachel Kincaid, an attorney for Mountain State Justice.

The letter cites a case in Oregon where a federal court ordered the state to give inmates the same prioritization for vaccines as it had to those in other congregate settings.

These two groups, along with the West Virginia NAACP and many other organizations and public defense attorneys, wrote to the governor earlier this month demanding the vaccines be distributed to inmates, though that letter did not suggest any legal actions.

One announcement has been made by Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch on potential plans. At a meeting Thursday, he spoke to the state’s Covid-19 Advisory Commission on Racial Disparities. Lately it’s been tackling how to get vaccines to Black and other underserved populations.

Jill Upson chairs the committee and was at the meeting. She said Crouch offered no timeframe or set protocol for getting vaccines to inmates, but he did promise to do so.

“I would expect by next Thursday’s call we would have a lot more information on what that plan is going to look like,” Upson said.

As of this week, almost 10,000 people reside in state jails and prisons.

Almost half a million West Virginians have gotten a first dose.

There have been 10 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state’s correctional facilities since the pandemic began.

The state has vaccinated 45 percent of corrections staff. All staff have been offered a dose, but many have opted not to get a shot.

The federal government is slowly vaccinating inmates in West Virginia’s federal prisons.