(TNS) — Since Dec. 1, there have been COVID-19 outbreaks in five of West Virginia's regional jails and at least four correctional centers.

During that time, at least 833 inmates in the 10 regional jails throughout West Virginia tested positive for the virus, and three outbreaks in three separate jails exceeded 190 cases — two outbreaks exceeded 250 cases.

During the whole month of December, and so far in January, the regional jails have operated at no fewer than 1,300 inmates above their listed capacity, despite efforts earlier this year to lower inmate populations because of the pandemic, as well as a new bail reform law for magistrates that went into effect this summer.

"Every jail outbreak is a time bomb," said Quenton King, criminal justice policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. "We keep getting lucky. I say 'lucky,' and that's with five inmates and one staff death. It could be a lot more. The odds just aren't in our favor." Since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March, five inmates in the custody of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation have died, according to Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation data provided to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

The state's 10 regional jails have been well beyond capacity since Dec. 1, when there were 5,709 inmates in the jails that are equipped with 4,265 beds, according to correctional facility information on the DHHR website.

On Tuesday, there were 5,739 inmates in the jails, according to a data sheet for jails and correctional facilities posted on the DHHR website.

The average daily population in the state's 10 regional jails between Dec. 1 and Jan. 4 was 5,640 people.

Since Dec. 1, the Northern Regional Jail, Eastern Regional Jail, Central Regional Jail, and Tygart Valley Regional Jail have experienced significant COVID-19 outbreaks, according to data submitted to the DHHR by corrections officials.

At the height of the outbreak in the Eastern Regional Jail, on Dec. 28 and 29, there were 268 active cases at the Martinsburg facility, where the inmate capacity is 448 people. There were 522 people incarcerated there on Dec. 28 and 524 people on Dec. 29.

As of Jan. 1, there were 253 active cases at the Central Regional Jail in Braxton County, where there is a capacity for 312 inmates. As of Monday, there were 251 active cases among 468 people incarcerated there.

The Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville experienced an outbreak early in December. On Dec. 8, 198 inmates were considered to have active cases of COVID-19. That jail has a capacity for 366 people, and there were 444 people incarcerated there on Dec. 8.

As of Monday, the Tygart Valley Regional Jail in Barbour County, with a capacity for 368 people, had 84 active cases among its inmates. There were 506 people incarcerated there Tuesday.

"As the prevalence of COVID rises in the state, in the general population, and we're still incarcerating people in jails, we're still going to have a lot of jail outbreaks," King said.

Last week, Gov. Jim Justice said there were no plans to vaccinate any inmates of any age in the state's COVID-19 vaccination plan. Correctional officers are included in Phase 1-B of the plan, along with police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders.

Jails and Pandemic Control

In April, a federal judge ruled that West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials had the discretion to implement policies and manage inmates without a court stepping in to mandate what they must do.

Corrections officials took steps in the spring to decrease the jail population, reducing the total population by 10 percent by the beginning of April.

On April 20, there were 4,100 people in the state's jails, but the population has gone up steadily since then, King said.

Regional jails house people who are awaiting trial but can't pay their bail or haven't had a bail posted. They also hold those who are serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes and some nonviolent felonies. The corrections system houses those convicted of and sentenced for felony crimes.

Lida Shepherd works for the American Friends Service Committee's West Virginia Economic Justice Project. Shepherd was relieved to see the jail population decrease in April thanks to orders from the Supreme Court and efforts by magistrates and public defenders throughout the state. However, now that the jails again are overcrowded — even more so than they were when the pandemic began — they've become "tinderboxes" for COVID-19 outbreaks, she said.

"When nearly half of the people in our regional jails haven't been convicted of a crime, in the middle of a pandemic, we're looking at both a public health crisis and a moral one," Shepherd said.

In addition to guidance and efforts for temporary population control, a bail reform law that was meant to decrease the jail population took effect in July.

The law, previously House Bill 2419, requires magistrates to release people from custody on a personal recognizance bond if that person was arrested on certain nonviolent charges, instead of issuing a cash bail and sending the person to jail when they can't pay it. The American Friends Service Committee lobbied for the Legislature's support of the bill.

"Now, more than ever before, we must reduce our regional jail population, which could be accomplished in part through more personal recognizance bonds and following the bail law that went into effect over the summer," Shepherd said. "This law mandates PR bonds for low-level felonies and misdemeanors, except for good cause shown."

The new law, so far, hasn't had the intended effect, King said.

"It's obvious magistrates aren't following it to the letter," King said. "We don't know where exactly. We don't know which magistrates, and we don't know why they're not following it. It's very clear [that] bail reform isn't working, but it's also clear, prisons aren't taking in people either.

Outbreaks in the jails have ebbed and flowed, with rates similar to those in the general public, King said. In the state's correctional centers, which are roughly 1,500 inmates below their capacities, the outbreaks have been limited.

Per the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation's COVID-19 response policy, transfers from the jails to correctional centers for people sentenced to them have been limited since the pandemic began, said Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security.

As of late, corrections officials have completely halted efforts to transfer inmates from jails to prisons after their sentencing, Messina said in an email Monday.

As of Tuesday, there were COVID-19 outbreaks in two correctional facilities, Saint Marys Correctional Center and Ohio County Correctional Center.

There were 56 cases at Saint Mary's on Tuesday, down from 285 cases there on Dec. 25 and 26. In the Ohio County center, there were 11 active cases Tuesday.

Corrections Cpl. Mark Rustemeyer, 58, who had worked at the Saint Marys center since 1998, died Jan. 2 while being treated for COVID-19, Department of Homeland Security officials announced in a news release Sunday. As of Sunday, there were 54 active cases of the disease among corrections staff, according to the news release.

Based on data compiled from the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, King said that, as of Dec. 17, about 2,200 people in the jails were technically in the custody of Corrections, meaning they've been sentenced to correctional centers but still are living in the overcrowded jails.

The state's correctional centers were 1,604 people below their 5,427-bed capacity Monday.

"Either way, one or the other would be at or over capacity," King said. "This isn't just happening in West Virginia. Other states have stopped taking in new prisoners. It's stopping outbreaks in most of the prisons, but it's not stopping the outbreaks in jails."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect name in association an employee at St. Marys Correctional Center who was being treated for COVID-19 and died. The previous version of this story also implied a path of infection that has not been confirmed. The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not stated or implied that Cpl. Mark Rustemeyer contracted COVID-19 at the facility.

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