Lawsuit targets public safety, health amid COVID-19 response

CHARLESTON, 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 Rehabilitation.

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 Saturday statement.

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 COVID-19 pandemic.”

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 Saturday statement.

“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.”

Tyler Barker
Tyler Barker is currently the News Director and Digital Content Manager for WOAY-TV. He was promoted to this job in Mid-November. He still will fill in on weather from time to time. You can Follow Tyler on Facebook and Twitter @wxtylerb. Have any news tips or weather questions? Email him at tbarker@woay.com