targets public safety, health amid COVID-19 response
W.Va. – Lawyers for several sex offenders, a domestic batterer
and other convicted felons seek to have such inmates released because of the
COVID-19 pandemic, a move opposed by the W.Va. Division of Corrections and
County officials and groups representing law
enforcement and emergency responders have rallied to support the agency’s
position ahead of a Monday federal court hearing in the matter.
“During this pandemic and state of
emergency, law enforcement is already stressed to their limits, communities are
stressed and crime continues to flourish in some locations where the criminal
element has seen emergency orders of the state as a signal that our laws are
suspended and they may commit any act they see fit,” Wood County Sheriff Steve
Stephens, president of the West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, said in a
The U.S. District Court hearing was
requested by Mountain State Justice. It represents a group of offenders,
including several convicted of sexual and other violent crimes, in a lawsuit it
hopes becomes a class-action over medical services and conditions in West
Virginia’s regional jails.
Though this lawsuit was filed in 2018, the
lawyers have sought to “bootstrap” allegations arising from the COVID-19 crisis
into the case and target both the jails and state prisons, WV DCR has argued in
its court filings.
“In addition, Plaintiffs’ motion is based
upon the false premise that WVDCR currently does not have an adequate plan in
effect to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic,” one filing said. “Plaintiffs are
well-aware of the fact that WVDCR already has a plan in effect to deal with the
The plaintiffs have announced they will
call several inmates as witnesses Monday. Those planned witnesses include a
Northern Regional Jail inmate accused of violating his supervised release for
possessing child pornography in Hancock County, and a Potomac Highlands Regional
Jail inmate convicted of strangulation in a Wood County domestic violence case.
Other named plaintiffs in the case include
three convicted sex offenders jailed for failing to register as such, including
one required to register as a lifetime sex offender.
Despite what Mountain State Justice has
alleged, WVDCR believes the evidence will show that inmates see and appreciate its
COVID-19 precautions and preparations. These measures include additional
hygiene and cleaning products, increased monitoring of inmate health,
heightened health screenings when inmates first enter a jail, and suspension of
medical copays for sick call visits.
The lawsuit and pending motion also
conflict with ongoing, measured steps taken by WVDCR to balance public health
and public safety concerns. These steps include extending furloughs for already-eligible
work-release inmates and releasing parolees who were temporarily jailed for technical
violations if they have approved home plans. The Supreme Court, in consultation
with WVDCR, has also asked that county prosecutors identify pretrial defendants
suitable for personal recognizance or reduced bonds.
“WVDCR and the state Parole Board review
each case individually and weigh the severity of the crime involved,” added
Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy. “They also review each
inmate’s degree of rehabilitation. West Virginia has a high success rate with
released inmates not violating the law again. For public safety’s sake, we must
continue that trend by using sound judgment before deciding to release inmates.”
Kanawha County officials expressed concern
over the lawsuit in a statement Friday.
“We heard loud and clear from the
Prosecuting Attorney that the effort to allow a mass release of prisoners,
including any plan that could potentially allow the release of convicted
murderers or sex offenders, raises several legal issues and would prove to be
very dangerous to the public,” said Kanawha County Commissioner President Kent
Carper, a lawyer.
The West Virginia Emergency Management
Council is similarly “very much opposed” to such an action, it said in a
“With the current uneasiness the pandemic
has brought to each county, such an early release would only add to the
apprehension,” WVEMC President Dean Meadows said. “This action could cause
victim anxiety, public distrust and could very well negate the confidence that
West Virginians have placed in their state and local governments, making the
job of our law enforcement even more burdensome.”