Inmates in three West Virginia jails have reported that they aren’t being medically isolated and some have stopped reporting symptoms of COVID-19 to staff while being crowded into booking and suicide-watch pens, according to a report filed in a federal court case last month.
Dr. Homer Venters said he witnessed people sleeping on cement floors “inches from each other” in booking pens, while nearby jail cells were unused in three jails he inspected in September, part of an attempt to get an injunction to compel corrections officials to update, and more strictly adhere to, COVID-19 policies.
U.S. District Judge Robert “Chuck” Chambers will conduct a hearing on the inmates’ motion Wednesday in Huntington.
The Gazette-Mail reported earlier this week that Venters said he was “deeply concerned” that corrections officials were utilizing practices “that actively and needlessly expose people to COVID-19 infection, mortality and morbidity.”
In a response to the motion for the injunction, attorneys for Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsey Jividen wrote that she was not aware of some of the experiences about which inmates told Venters during his inspection. Her attorneys also note that corrections officials were in the process of updating the division’s COVID-19 policies.
Attorneys wrote in a footnote to the document filed Oct. 19 that Jividen had reviewed the motion for the injunction and taken steps to investigate and address any policy violations.
“Given the limited time, she has not yet been able to fully investigate each alleged incident but has provided the information she has obtained to date herein.”
Venters is a physician and epidemiologist with expertise in correctional health, having worked as a correctional health expert for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Attorneys with Mountain State Justice, who are representing the inmates in an ongoing federal court case about medical care and treatment in the state’s jails and prisons, retained Venters to conduct the inspections of West Virginia’s jails.
Of the state’s 10 regional jails, Venters inspected the Northern Regional Jail, Western Regional Jail and Tygart Valley Regional Jail between Sept. 27 and 29.
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 in the state’s prisons.
As of Tuesday, there were 5,368 people incarcerated in the regional jails, which are equipped to house 4,265 people, according to a report filed with the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
There were 53 active cases of COVID-19 in the jails, according to the report. Approximately 41 of the cases were in Martinsburg’s Eastern Regional Jail.
Attorneys with the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation filed a motion in September for an emergency order to postpone the inspections because of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Northern Regional Jail.
Chambers rejected the motion, saying Venters and corrections officials had said they would take proper precautions, including wearing personal protective equipment during the inspection, and that Venters was willing to inspect other jails, including the South Central Regional, in Charleston, if corrections officials thought the Northern Regional was too dangerous.
Venters conducted the inspections and summarized that he was “deeply concerned that WVDCR is currently utilizing practices that actively and needlessly expose people to COVID-19 infection, morbidity and mortality.”
“My inspection of the three WVDCR facilities, discussion with staff and detained people alike confirm that WVDCR is simply ignoring the need for medical isolation, which is causing dramatic increase in the numbers of infections,” Venters said.
He said the practice was evident in the Northern and Tygart Valley jails, but it appeared that the staff at the Western Regional was medically isolating inmates.
Venters indicated in his report that he intended to file a subsequent report, in which he would address the care being provided for people experiencing mental health crises in the jails.
“The intake/booking areas are extremely crowded, especially the suicide-watch pens,” Venters said. “This approach, having people sleeping on a cement floor inches from each other while in the midst of a mental health crisis, represents a serious threat to the spread of COVID-19. This is also a gross deviation from basic clinical standards for mental health care, which I will address in my subsequent report.”
Venters spoke with 108 people during his inspections, including inmates and staff.
At least one inmate said the circumstances in the jails have led to inmates being less inclined to report their symptoms to jail staff.
“Many people reported to me that after a cellmate tests positive for COVID-19 and is placed back into their cell with them, when they become sick, they believe that there is no benefit to reporting their symptoms,” Venters said. “One person stated, ‘why would I say anything when they’ve already thrown us to the wolves?”
Venters said it is apparent that no routine testing is taking place at critical points during inmates’ incarceration in the jails “leaving WVDCR blind to how many people are entering their facilities with COVID-19.”
“In addition, it is apparent that when a new case occurs, there is no testing of the entire housing area, which leads to a gross underestimate of the number of new cases that result from each index case,” Venters said. “There is additionally no testing of individuals who have been in quarantine prior to taking them out of quarantine.”
In their response, attorneys for the division noted that Venters’ inspection took place at the peak of the delta variant surge in West Virginia.
They noted that Venters’ recommendations for testing, which include testing all inmates upon arrival to jail and after significant exposure to COVID-19, are “over-reaching and unrealistic.”
“The CDC guidance for correctional facilities acknowledges that there is not a one-size fits all solution,” attorneys said in the division’s response.
Venters reported clinical assessments that were being conducted among inmates twice a day for inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 were adequate, but he said the policy for treatment appeared to be outdated, including a statement saying there is no specific treatment available for COVID-19.
“This is simply incorrect,” Venters said, noting that the Food and Drug Administration approved the medication remdesivir for treatment of COVID-19 in adults and children older than 12 years.
Jividen’s attorneys said health care providers in the jail system are providing “reasonable treatments that are approved, prescribed and administered by the medical providers to inmates,” where available.
“Where deemed necessary by medical staff, inmates in need of acute care are transferred to local hospitals,” attorneys wrote in the response.
Chambers denied a similar injunction request in April 2020, saying officials had demonstrated that they had taken into consideration guidance from the CDC early in the pandemic and they had the discretion to implement policies and manage inmates without a court mandate.
The inmates’ motion is part of an ongoing lawsuit, filed in December 2018, in which they claim Corrections and Rehabilitation failed to provide them with adequate health care.
None of the inmates who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking release based on their claims.