With the nationwide introduction of COVID-19 (also known as the novel coronavirus), we are taking precautions related to handwashing, use of hand sanitizer, and social distancing. These precautions are not available to the inmates in our jails and prisons, individuals who are at risk to the spread of disease by virtue of their environment, health conditions, and age.
In a Q+A from The New Yorker, former Chief Medical Officer for Rikers Island, Homer Venters, discusses challenges presented by infectious disease in the jails and what he did to contain the H1N1 outbreak in the New York City jails. Of note is his mention of the movement of inmates to and from court, calling to mind the many inmates in close quarters in jail booking, the transport van, and the holding cells at the courthouse. The idea of bringing clients to court for their hearings during an infectious respiratory disease pandemic is worth considering given the risk for disease spread to inmates and correctional officers.
In an NPR piece, Dr. Robert Greifinger points out there is a perceived lack of risk in inmates spreading COVID-19 because many of the inmates are younger in age than some of the stated at-risk age groups the CDC highlights (such as those over age 60). However, Greifinger points out as well that the correctional officers have contact with the inmates in facilities, leave and return to the jail in shifts, potentially bringing the virus with them to their community or homes.
Finally, there are enough older-age inmates in West Virginia jails to be concerned about compromised health if the virus takes hold. The Federal Bureau for Justice Statistics categorizes older age inmates as 55 years and up because of the increasing number of health conditions that occur at that age or later for the inmate population. From the WV Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority FY17 Annual Report (the last year data was available), more than 5,200 inmates over the age of 50 had been admitted to the regional jails during that fiscal year. If the present count of older age inmates mirrors the 2017 numbers, then approximately 11% of our jail population is at higher risk of infection based on age alone.
Today, March 16, 2020, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued an order directing state courts to suspend all but emergency proceedings and postpone trials except where speedy trial rights would be impacted. The circuit clerk’s offices and judicial offices (where public restrictions exist) will remain open but for contact by phone, email, or drop boxes for court filings. Also in effect prior to the Supreme Court’s order, non-legal visitation has been eliminated across West Virginia’s regional jails to safeguard against the potential spread of COVID-19 by persons (family, friends) coming into or leaving the jails, but the inmates, attorneys representing them, correctional and jail medical staff are still on the front lines.