Inmates incarcerated in West Virginia have even less access to the outside world while the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads through the Mountain State.
The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation has banned all visitors, except attorneys, from entering the state’s 10 regional jails and 13 prisons, where, in total more than 10,000 people were incarcerated on Thursday, according to data provided by division officials.
Those facilities are equipped to hold a combined 9,692 people, and division officials are monitoring the pandemic and facility situations daily to determine what steps need to be taken, said Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which oversees the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
No cases of COVID-19 had been reported at any of the state’s incarceration facilities as of Friday.
With limited visitation available at jails and prisons, Global Tel Link, the company that provides telecommunications services to those facilities, isn’t totally cutting the cost inmates pay to use the phones, tablets and communication kiosks at the jails and prisons, Messina said.
The company has given inmates up to 45 minutes for free to call their families and loved ones during the pandemic, Messina said.
In prisons, inmates will get two, 15-minute phone calls for free each week, and inmates in jail will each get two, 5-minute phone calls per week.
To video conference, inmates in jails and prisons will each get one, 15-minute video chat.
After those times run out, the standard rates will apply to each line of communication for the inmates.
Inmates pay 3.2 cents per minute per phone call in prisons, and the rate in jails is anywhere between 7 and 12 cents per minute, depending on the type of call and method of payment used, Messina said.
Video communication is a flat 25 cents per minute.
That means a 15-minute video call normally costs an inmate $3.75. A 15-minute phone call from prison costs 48 cents, and a 5-minute phone call from jail costs between 35 and 60 cents.
Global Tel Link provides telecommunications services to incarceration facilities throughout the country and has allowed similar limited free communication for inmates in jails and prisons in California, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Washington and Iowa.
Messina said Global Tel Link returns a portion of its proceeds to the state, which are distributed to inmate benefit funds in prisons and jail operating expenses and have been used to cover annual construction bond payments.
ACLU-WV called on the state to completely suspend all charges paid by inmates for phone, internet and other communications.
“For those who are incarcerated, the ability to communicate with friends and loved ones is critical,” said Billy Wolfe, director of communications and development for ACLU-WV. “In the midst of a public health crisis and with in-person visitation essentially suspended, the only ethical thing to do in this situation is for the DOCR to suspend charges associated with the use of phones, internet, and any other form of communication.”
As of Thursday, there were 4,997 people incarcerated in regional jails, which are equipped with 4,265 beds, and 5,372 people were incarcerated in the state’s prisons, which have a combined 5,427 beds.
Beyond blocking visits, Messina said the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation had allowed for each superintendent to determine protocols to keep their facilities clean and keep inmates and staff safe amid the pandemic.
There weren’t any plans among jail and prison officials to discuss the release of any inmates from custody, particularly anyone awaiting trial for non-violent misdemeanors who can’t pay bail.
Whether anyone gets released from prison would be the decision of the judge in a given case, Messina said.
The West Virginia Legislature earlier this month passed a bill that would require magistrates to release people from the state’s custody without cash or property bond if they’re charged with certain non-violent misdemeanors and meet other criteria, but that law isn’t in effect.
The West Virginia Supreme Court last week handed down an order and established protocol for judges to limit their face-to-face interactions and instead conduct hearings by phone or video.
Justices weren’t likewise considering any measure that would “result in the broad or general release of inmates in response to the coronavirus.”
“However, the Supreme Court has been working in cooperation with the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety [DMAPS] to define processes to be followed by law enforcement and judicial officers in relation to the arrest and pretrial detainment of individuals who may exhibit symptoms of the coronavirus or may have been otherwise exposed to the coronavirus, should such situations arise,” the court said in a combined statement.
ACLU-WV again called upon the state to consider taking judicial action to “protect both the incarcerated and the people working within the system.
“At minimum, prosecutors should move or allow for release for all of those held pretrial who are there only because they cannot afford bail,” Wolfe said. “Magistrates should release individuals on recognizance except in the most dire of circumstances. The governor should, at minimum, grant immediate commutations to individuals with sentences ending in the next year, to anyone being held on a technical supervision violation, and to anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years.”